Britten: War Requiem

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Benjamin Britten
ALBUM TITLE: Britten: War Requiem
WORKS: War Requiem
PERFORMER: Sabina Cvilak, Ian Bostridge, Simon Keenlyside; Choir of Eltham College; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda

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Sir Colin Davis was due to conduct this Requiem, and while we lose what would no doubt have been a reading of special authority, we nonetheless gain a taut, riveting version by the formidable Gianandrea Noseda.

Britten’s work still carries the burden of being a work of public art, written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral. The Italian Noseda, unburdened by this heritage, delivers it afresh as a scintillating achievement, which draws together the best in Britten’s musical armoury to searing effect. Aided by the LSO’s menacing brass, he lends this Dies Irae the explosive Verdian force it requires: its rhythms are alert, textures clear, pauses speak volumes and colours are vivid (though the Eltham boys are, perhaps, too present, lacking the distance of a cathedral acoustic).

The whole episode of Abraham and Isaac, with its snarling and jocular opening, is made more devastating by the sheer sweetness of the boy’s voices. The unhinged, major-key interruptions of the soloists, followed by the cheerfully brisk chorus, give the impression here of manic laughter. Most impressive is the pianissimo achieved by the LSO chorus – in the eerie Kyrie, the ‘Recordare’, and at the end. Ultimately it leaves us with a sense of the chilling truth: the pitilessness of war, not the pity, is Britten’s theme.

Sabina Cvilak’s soprano has the focus, though not always the required gravitas, while tenor Ian Bostridge brings a piercing sincerity to all his solos, ‘Move him into the sun’ being almost unbearably poignant. Baritone Simon Keenlyside takes a different approach: sonorous, commanding, but sometimes
lacking the necessary bitter edge.

Comparing versions of this work is invidious: one would never be without Britten’s own, nor does this reading surpass Richard Hickox’s, also with the LSO, featuring the incomparable Heather Harper, Philip Langridge and John Shirley-Quirk. Nevertheless, this is an important issue: Noseda’s judgement of pace is unerring, and the orchestra and chorus simply superb.

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Helen Wallace