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Britten: War Requiem - Rilling

Britten: War Requiem - Rilling

Hänssler Classic  098.507.000 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

Annette Dasch (soprano)
James Taylor (tenor)
Christian Gerhaher (bass)
Aurelius-Sängerknaben Calw
Festival Ensemble Stuttgart
Helmuth Rilling (conductor)


Britten's "War Requiem" may be one of the largest and most shaking works of the 20th century. The work was an immediate success following its premiere on May 30th 1962 for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral (which had been destroyed during the Battle of Britain in World War II), winning the admiration of both press and public. Britten used texts from Catholic Mass for the Dead and poems by Wilfried Owens, in order to make a public statement of Britten's anti-war convictions. It was a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of other men.

The fact that Britten wrote the piece for three specific soloists -- a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), and a British tenor (Peter Pears) -- demonstrated that he had more than the losses of his own country in mind, and symbolized the importance of reconciliation. Since the work requires an extensive ensemble of singers and musicians, it is rarely performed. In this performance by Helmuth Rilling, the maestro has once again called upon some of the finest singers in Europe and presides over the massive musical canvas with a deep sensitivity to the works texts and intent, to create a truly shattering performance for our time.

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Review by John Miller - March 25, 2012

Hänssler Classic offer a two-disc set of Britten's War Requiem, in a studio performance from the 2007 European Music Festival at Stuttgart. Rilling's forces include the Aurelius Boy's Choir from Calw, Germany and the Festival Ensemble Stuttgart, an orchestra and chorus of musicians aged between 18 and 30 years from all over the world, assembled and directed by Rilling.

The War Requiem is Britten's most excoriating message to the world about the pity and futility of War, and he mentioned that it was the music that he most wanted to outlive him. I suspect that he would have approved of the involvement of players and singers with no direct experience of the two World Wars, as well as the bringing together of youthful musicians from many countries.

The War Requiem, composed in 1962 for the dedication of a new Cathedral in Coventry, England, which had been built upon the bombed-out ashes of the former Gothic Cathedral. Touched by genius, he took the Latin text of the Missa de Profunctis and interspersed its movements with poems from the First World War soldier poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was killed on the Western Front just before the Armistice. Owen's bleak, terse and profoundly disturbing lines were used to comment on the Latin Requiem's prayers and promises.

Inspired also by the large acoustic space in which the Requiem would be premièred, Britten conceived it with three spatially and instrumentally differentiated groups, needing two conductors. The Latin texts are set for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra, whole the Owen texts are shared between tenor and baritone soloists accompanied by a chamber orchestra of 12 players. The Latin Hymns are sung by a boys choir and small organ placed distantly from the other forces.

While there is no doubt that the youthful forces were anxious to give a good performance, it is evident from the very first bars that the approach is far softer and more rounded than Britten's peerless recording for Decca. There is no profound sense of impending calamity, and the pungent irony of mushc of Britten's brilliantly detailed orchestration is lost. Indeed, Rilling seems to treat the Requiem as just another oratorio but the chorus lacks taut ensemble and has very poor diction and articulation, so the vital texts mostly seem mumbled. This applies also to the Boy's Choir.

Rilling's soloists don't seem to have "settled in" to their roles, singing with generally expressive tones but without the fire of Britten's Peter Pears and Fischer-Dieskau, or their superb word-painting and deep understanding of the texts. Annette Dasch is also no match for Vishnevskaya in her' Liber Scriptus', where the Russian mezzo projects her vitriol out into the void.

Sonically, this recording also has problems. Much of this stems from the somewhat claustrophobic and dryish acoustic of the Beethovensaal in Stuttgart. From the session photo, the stage is quite crowded into a smallish space, with the main chorus in tiers behind the orchestra. The Aurelius boys can be seen on the right immediately behind the orchestra - hardly "distant" as Britten wanted. Their distance appears to be obtained via a microphone on a very long stand above them and several metres in front.

If you are listening in surround mode, where you hear the boys voices depends on how loud your surround speakers are. If correctly balanced, their image is front right, with a lot of their sound emanating from the surrounds. For some reason, in the last movement, they seen to be moved to the right surround. The small organ accompaniment is virtually inaudible.

When the tenor and baritone sing, one is startled to hear both of them, together with the whole 12 strong chamber orchestra, emerge from the left surround speaker, while the right surround produces general ambience. The singers and chamber group are ridiculously close, and in a totally different acoustic environment, like a booth; not at all well balanced - the harp is barely audible, for example. Britten wanted the Owen poems to be confrontational, but this is difficult if the singers are confronting from behind! The composer was well aware of the surround placing of instruments in Berlioz and Verdi's Requiems, and would have specified this if he wanted such an effect. Moving to the Stereo track, however, gives a more normal frontal placement of the performers, even though the soloists are somewhat back in the mix. The lop-sided Multi track, however, is a disaster and very distracting, so one's concentration on the music is severely impaired.

If you have not heard the Britten recording of his Requiem, this performance may seem worthy, and certainly it would be a decent memento of the live performance in the 2007 European Music Festival. I wouldn't, however, recommend it for a serious collection.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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