Britten War Reqiuem
The War Requiem is a demanding work in every way. It’s driven by emotional tension, and its ill-rehearsed premiere in a barely completed cathedral notoriously drove Britten to the brink of breakdown. Many subsequent performances have all too easily slackened into the worthy dullness of its less inspired passages.
Clearly something better was needed for the 50th anniversary performance, also in Coventry Cathedral, and happily it received this at the hands of the CBSO and its inspiring conductor Andris Nelsons. The three soloists are not, perhaps, quite as eminent as the originals, but they’re all excellent. Canadian soprano Erin Wall sounds lighter than Heather Harper, let alone the volcanic Galina Vishnevskaya, forbidden to perform by the Soviets, but her penetrating tone is compelling throughout the Dies Irae. Tenor Mark Padmore’s vocal quality is less naturally anguished than Peter Pears, but his more robust delivery is welcome alongside the sturdy baritone of Hanno Müller-Brachmann, closely resembling that of the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, his teacher. The CBSO choruses, far excelling the original’s scratch choirs, also seem to benefit from better placement within the cathedral, against the high angel screen revealing the bombed ruins, with the youth chorus beneath Sutherland’s Christ in Majesty, against which the camera shows us Nelsons. A Latvian, he can perhaps represent an Eastern Bloc element here, and as with Jakub Hr∞≥a’s Glyndebourne Turn of the Screw, his un-English reading, more tautly controlled and vigorous than Britten’s own, reveals unexpected hues and beauties in the score.
This never drags, despite so much inner darkness, and the camera enhances the performance, in showing the airy cathedral itself and the faces of the youth chorus, and indeed Nelsons’s own, intent and uplifted.
Michael Scott Rohan