Revisiting Britten ‘War Requiem,’ in Composer’s Hands

Winston Churchill at the bombed ruins of Coventry Cathedral 1941 (Wiki Commons)
Winston Churchill at the bombed ruins of Coventry Cathedral in 1941. (Wiki Commons)
Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ was commissioned to consecrate the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, the composer taking part.
By Richard S. Ginell

Britten: War Requiem (Centenary Edition): Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Simon Preston (organ), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Melos Ensemble, The Bach Choir, The Highgate School Choir, Benjamin Britten (conductor). Decca CD and Blu-ray (3 discs)

New War Req 350This 1963 composer-supervised recording was a surprise sensation in its time – 200,000 copies sold in the first five months, an unbelievable figure for a serious new work on a full-priced, two-LP set – and its success reportedly gave Britten carte-blanche at Decca to record anything he wanted to afterwards. It still stands at the head of the pack, not only for its stellar vocal soloists, for whom the parts were written, and the composer’s ability to wring an explosive, emotional performance from everyone, but also for producer John Culshaw’s innovative use of stereo and space to serve Britten’s intentions.

For the Britten centenary, Decca has served up a boxed set with the remastered War Requiem squeezed onto one overstuffed 81½ minute CD, a second disc devoted to a compilation of rehearsal excerpts that Culshaw made for Britten’s 50th birthday, and a Blu-ray audio disc containing the War Requiem in high-definition 96kHz 24 bit resolution.

Manuscript of Wilfred Owen 'The Parable of the Old Man and the Young Man' (Oxford University)
Manuscript of Wilfred Owen poem set by Britten (British Library)

In a head-to-head-to-head comparison between the CD, Blu-ray, and an original LP pressing, the Blu-ray runs a close race with the remastered CD, but I would give Blu-ray a slight yet distinctive edge. You can sense the ambience of Kingsway Hall and the stereo separation more clearly on Blu-ray; the CD sounds a bit more closed-in. The LP has a rather different sound – clearer still and livelier, yet also more shrill; the recording sounds its age more on vinyl. Another difference is how CD and Blu-ray treat Vishnevskaya; she seems more musical and less harsh on CD and Blu-ray than on LP, which could alter the perception of her performance (she was originally considered the weakest link of the cast).

If you don’t have the rehearsal disc already, this edition is a must, for the 50-minute sequence is most revealing of Britten’s methods and his vision of this piece. He uses wonderfully descriptive, specific language to obtain the intensity he wants, along with deflating senses of humor and conviviality. Interestingly, Britten took umbrage at first when presented with this disc, feeling that his privacy during rehearsal had been violated. But later, he recanted – and we are fortunate that he didn’t have it destroyed.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.