Sir Antonio Pappano: Britten War Requiem
After decades in which Britten’s own 1963 recording of the War Requiem reigned supreme, a host of fine new recordings now jostle for supremacy. These three new issues all boast top-drawer soloists, well-prepared choirs and dynamic orchestras. So which delivers the most complete experience of this powerful work?
No one has gathered the ideal cast. Antonio Pappano perhaps gets closest. The eloquent Ian Bostridge has that liquid, Pears-ian shimmer in his voice. He delivers ‘What passing bells’ in one urgent expressive gesture, and the long-breathed lines of his ‘One ever hangs’ and ‘Strange Meeting’ are spellbinding. Thomas Hampson is strong, but no match for Bostridge in characterisation. Pappano’s secret weapon is Anna Netrebko, whose thrilling steel-cored soprano is a match for Galina Vishnevskaya’s.
For Mariss Jansons, Mark Padmore does not sound in finest voice, though his ‘Strange Meeting’ is uniquely chilling. His slow-paced ‘One ever hangs’ has a lame, halting quality, which, though apt, is harder to control. Christian Gerhaher brings his shamanistic focus to key moments like ‘After the blast’. He has a way of draining colour from his voice, which makes the sudden flood of tone and volume so effective, but his English is at times peculiarly over-enunciated. Emily Magee is fiery and imperious.
Paul McCreesh’s cast includes Christopher Maltman and John Mark Ainsley. Maltman seems to me to have that ideal mix of authority and poetry in his approach to the songs, and is articulate without over-emphasising small details. His ‘Be slowly lifted up’ is intensely moving; ‘After the blast’ has a natural flow and ‘Strange Meeting’ is sharply dramatised by both. Aided by McCreesh’s slightly swifter tempos, Maltman and Ainsley’s duets have a compelling tension with a happy match of timbres and style. The grittier Ainsley nevertheless brings out princely beauty in ‘One ever hangs’, while the graceful phrasing of Susan Gritton in the Sanctus is just one example of her sophisticated artistry.
Many jewels, then, but who owns the crown? While Jansons brings a powerful sense of momentum, the very forward, live recording – in the Munich Philharmonie – lacks atmosphere, and the Tolz boys are stolid rather than unearthly. Pappano ignites the drama: his opening is truly hushed, his percussion the closest to artillery, his chorus in the Dies Irae snarls. But there are occasional missed opportunities: in the Sanctus, he doesn’t allow the free-rhythmic clamour time to bloom fully, and tips into the next line too quickly. McCreesh creates a vast crescendo and pauses for an awestruck moment before an incandescent Hosanna, with heart-stopping results. The Gabrielis and Wroc√aw Philharmonic Choir are joined by a host of young voices, and it shows in a choral sound of airy, pure brilliance. His New College choristers have the ideal mix of celestial glow and nimble impatience; his orchestra is wonderfully articulate. And the sound picture has the greatest depth and range of all the recordings. While I wouldn’t be without Netrebko and Bostridge, the profundity and coherence of McCreesh’s reading sets a new standard for this work.