LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Requiem in D minor, K626
PERFORMER: Heather Harper (soprano), Alfreda Hodgson (mezzo-soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (bass); Aldeburgh Festival Chorus, ECO/ Benjamin Britten
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4119-2 ADD mono
‘I had never before seen a post-performance Britten so pallid, so silent, so drained of life,’ writes Donald Mitchell in his booklet reminiscence of this 1971 Maltings performance. And even the subfusc sound, with blurred choral tone and intermittent distortion, cannot obscure the blazing intensity of Britten’s reading. As Mitchell says, he conducts as if possessed by the music. This is one of the most dramatic, least churchy performances of the Requiem you will ever hear. The Introit is charged with suppressed tension, building inexorably to an overwhelming climax. And despite timpani thwacks that only register subliminally, the ‘Dies irae’ has a terrifying, almost hysterical vehemence. And even today, Britten’s tempi for the ‘Confutatis’ and, especially, ‘Rex tremendae’ shock with their desperate urgency, the fervour and commitment of the chorus triumphing over the sonic limitations. The ‘Domine Deus’ is equally thrilling in its implacable drive; and the ‘Hostias’, so often indulged, here unfolds in long, flowing paragraphs, with Britten characteristically hypersensitive to harmonic flux.
The soloists, all Aldeburgh regulars, make an eloquent, involving team, though Peter Pears was rather past his best by 1971. Here and there, most obviously the ‘Tuba mirum’, Britten enriches the string scoring of the familiar Süssmayr edition; elsewhere, as in the ‘Confutatis’, he touches up the trumpet parts.
Given the sound quality, and the offbeat ‘coupling’ – Britten in conversation with Donald Mitchell – this cannot be an outright benchmark recommendation. If you want a version of the Süssmayr edition using modern instruments, I’d suggest the powerful reading from Marriner and ASMF forces on Philips. But the more dramatic sections in Britten’s performance have a shattering immediacy that I have yet to hear surpassed. Richard Wigmore