On Britten’s War Requiem
This month sees the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem. The work was recorded for the first time by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in the same year, 1962, with Britten himself conducting – a disc that appeared in our recent feature on the 50 greatest recordings of all time. This year, the LSO returns to the piece, in a recording conducted by Italian Gianandrea Noseda. Here, we talk to him about the legacy of that first recording and about tackling Britten’s masterpiece.
What was it like to record this piece with the orchestra who made the first recording, conducted by the composer himself?
It’s incredible to have a new release with the same orchestra – though obviously not the same conductor! I cannot say that the new recording is continuing a tradition but I hope it will add a slightly different point of view. Having that one recording conducted by Britten enriches the piece because we have his point of view on it. I hope this new recording will be a next step – not necessarily better but maybe different.
How did you personally approach the challenge of conducting the work?
Of course I knew the piece, but without the specific invitation of the LSO I would probably never have considered learning it, to be honest. Thanks to this project I learned it very carefully, because it was like inviting a Russian conductor to conduct Verdi's La traviata in La Scala. It’s the same for an Italian conductor to come to London to conduct the War Requiem, which is a trademark of British classical music. Of course I’ve been spending a lot of time in the UK with the BBC Philharmonic but still I have Latin blood and Britten didn’t. But my approach has been respectful, loving and trying to understand what Britten meant with this music. Probably it’s not the most orthodox recording of the War Requiem but emotionally it works.
How did you go about recording it?
I conducted two performances in the Barbican which were recorded. And I think the quality of those two live performances was incredibly good – the orchestra, chorus and soloists performed so well – so despite the conductor everything was good! The producer and the sound engineer were able to capture the atmosphere of the live performance, which is difficult for the War Requiem because it’s very subtle and you have many different moods. I was very satisfied with the result.
The text for the War Requiem uses both Latin texts from the Requiem and poems – in English – by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the First World War. How did you manage to marry the two languages?
What makes this piece great is this genius idea to put together Latin text with the English poetry. I think to find a sort of connecting line going from one language to the other is important but at the same time you have to respect the differences between the two elements. I think the bits with the English text are among the best music Britten wrote – it’s incredibly inspired. Of course the Dies irae, the Lacrimosa, the big parts with chorus are incredibly powerful but the parts with the tenor and baritone in the small group are incredibly well written. The last section looks incredibly long but in performance it works fantastically well – the understanding of war, that you don’t kill people because you want to but because you have to, and after that you call your enemy ‘my friend’ because you don’t have anything against him. The tenderness and the strength in this moment are incredibly touching.
Gianandrea Noseda's recording of Britten's 'War Requiem' is reviewed in the current issue of BBC Music Magazine and is out now and available to buy on Amazon and iTunes. Noseda will also be conducting the LSO in a programme of Wagner, Berg and Beethoven on 21 June at the Barbican.