Britten: War Requiem

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: War Requiem
PERFORMER: Stefania Woytowicz (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Hans Wilbrink (baritone); Wandsworth School Boys Choir, Melos Ensemble, New Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus/Carlo Maria Giulini, Benjamin Britten
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4046-2 ADD
Written a couple of years after the first CND march to Aldermaston in 1958 and premiered in the year of the Cuban missile crisis, Britten’s War Requiem is often discussed in terms of its cold war context. Tippett thought it ‘the one musical masterpiece we possess with overt pacifist meanings’, and for many years the worthy motives which inspired the piece protected it, like a musical sacred cow, from adverse critical judgement. If it is played less often now, it may be partly because listeners have tired of its gravitas and a slightly self-congratulatory solemnity that has less resonance in an age that thinks very seldom about nuclear weapons.

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This performance from 1969 does not show the piece at its best. Recorded live in the Royal Albert Hall, Britten’s memorial to the dead suffers greatly from impertinent interruptions by the living. Passages of stillness featuring a single, soft timpani are shattered by coughs and splutters. At times even the hall itself seems to be alive, creaking, groaning and shifting on its foundations. The trio of soloists are eloquent if not outstanding and Giulini’s direction sensitive and well judged, but a reflective atmosphere appropriate to the subject matter is never sustained for long. Christopher Wood