Britten: War Requiem

The composer himself conducts this recording with the LSO

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Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears etc; LSO/Benjamin Britten (1962) Decca 475 7511

‘I thought Mozart and Verdi had said it all: I was wrong.’ So spoke the usually sceptical Ernst Roth, Britten’s publisher, after the momentous 1962 premiere of the War Requiem at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. It’s hard to imagine the impact the work made on an audience who’d lived through World War II and were entering the iciest phase of the Cold War – the Soviet authorities even prevented Galina Vishnevskaya from singing at the premiere.

Her presence on this iconic recording, together with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears, not only completes the powerful symbolism of bringing three warring nations together, but makes it definitive: Britten was writing personally for three muses who had all shared the wartime experience.

Who but Pears could have intoned ‘Strange Meeting’ with such spectral eeriness? Who has ever matched the furious authority of Fischer-Dieskau’s ‘Be slowly lifted up’? Listening again reminds of just how extraordinary Vishnevskaya’s voice was, too: darkly voluptuous with a core of steel. Her anguished cry of ‘Lacrimosa’ has lost none of its visceral power.

Britten succeeded, too, in evoking that spine-tingling burst of stratospheric sound from the Highgate boys choir which hardly sounds human. His incandescent commitment to pacifism and horror at the failure of humanism blazes forth. This Requiem was a craggy, uncompromising utterance, designed not to console but to confront, like the searing poetry of Wilfred Owen enshrined within it. As you can hear in the revealing out-takes from the rehearsals on this recording, Britten wanted real terror, real hysteria from the singers, and he got it.

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