July 1, 2006
War: the power of a simple word
Kurt Masur and the LPO's live recording of Britten's War Requiem captures the range of human emotions conjuered up by a single phrase
When Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write a work for the reconsecration of the Second World Wardestroyed Coventry Cathedral in May 1962, he was given three years and a free rein to exercise his creativity. A committed pacifist, Britten created in the War Requiem a work with an uncompromising anti-war message, written in an often dissonant, but always tonal and tightly structured way. What is truly inspired, though, is the way he weaves settings of Wilfred Owen's war poems into the Latin missa pro defunctis.
The War Requiem was immediately hailed as one of the choral masterpieces of the 20th century and instantly caught the public's imagination – the first recording of the work, conducted by the composer, sold more than 200,000 copies within five months of its release in 1963. The premiere was not without its problems, however; Britten had conceived the work for English, German and Russian soloists: Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Galina Vishnevskaya. However, the Soviet authorities would not allow Vishnevskaya to sing in the first performance. Thankfully, Vishnevskaya's unmistakeable, steel-edged sound can be heard on the original recording.
In the intervening 43 years there have been many more recordings of the work; it's as relevant to the 21st century world as it was back then. This latest recording was made on the 60th anniversary of VE Day, in May 2005, and features the London Philharmonic Orchestra and German conductor Kurt Masur, who himself is a passionate anti-war activist. It features three splendid soloists: American soprano Christine Brewer, her tenor compatriot Anthony Dean Griffey and the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. Whereas the two male soloists sing Owen's poetry from a soldier/everyman's perspective, the soprano's line is incorporated into the formal, Latin mass. Brewer sings her wide-ranging, swooping phrases from amongst the chorus, like an avenging angel, sometimes tender, sometimes terrifying. 'I feel the soprano solos come from an omnipotent place,' she explains. 'Sometimes she is an angel in a host of other angels. And sometimes she is a mother, especially in the "Lacrymosa"; she is weeping for her children.' Brewer's soprano is gleaming and powerful, but also rock-steady; she's able to bring her voice down to a silken thread of sound for the tender 'Benedictus'.
Finley and Griffey take the part of the two soldiers. Griffey's diction is rather artificial, but Finley is superb, his voice rich and full of expressive colour. He strikes the perfect balance between high drama and the understated emotion that is implicit in Britten's music. He sings Owen's haunting poem 'Strange Meeting' and its chilling revelation 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend' with a weary sadness that is quite devastating.
The other stars are the members of the London Philharmonic Chorus – they sing with impeccable ensemble, crisp diction and musical conviction. Masur balances the pace of the work masterfully and inspires some fabulous playing from the orchestra. What's outstanding about this recording, though, is the atmosphere of the live performance. Christine Brewer explains. 'What I loved about this performance was how connected to the text everyone was and how Masur challenged everyone on the stage to tap into the emotions surrounding the anguish of war. It was one of the most moving musical experiences I've ever had. I'll never forget how at the end of the night Masur walked out on the stage and turned to the audience. He held up the score and pointed to Britten's name. That said it all.'