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Britten’s own iconic recording of his War Requiem was set down in January 1963 for Decca and has never been out of the catalogue in 50 years. Featuring the soloists for whom Britten intended the work (cold war cultural politics had blocked Vishnevskaya’s participation in the Coventry Cathedral premiere), this recording remains the benchmark reading by which all others must be judged. For its latest reincarnation, the Decca engineers have returned to the original analogue tapes, the earliest LP pressings and subsequent digital remasterings to produce a definitive transfer using the very latest technology. The sonic results are as impressive as the performance. There’s even an audio Blu-ray disc included, though you’ll need the appropriate equipment to appreciate it. The work now appears on a single CD, with a second disc reserved for 50 compelling minutes of Britten rehearsing his forces. The Bach Choir and London Symphony Chorus are simply superb for the composer, and Pears and Fischer-Dieskau an ideal pairing. has anyone ever sung Owen’s ‘at a calvary near Ancre’ in the Agnus Dei more intelligently than Pears, or negotiated the haunting ‘Dona nobis pacem’ ending more skilfully or beautifully? Vishnevskaya has never been to everyone’s taste: her animal-like, operatic colours are far removed from English oratorio singing, but this is clearly what made her attractive to Britten. Simply a must-have recording.

For many years, Britten’s account remained unchallenged. But then Simon Rattle made a particularly fine recording in the mid-1980s, since when there has been a steady trickle of new ones (around 20 at the time of writing), as younger generations of singers and conductors discover the piece for themselves, all bringing fresh interpretative insights. In the Britten centenary year, this trickle has become a bit of flood, with today’s star conductors ever eager to set down their view of this most humanitarian of works.

Unlike Britten’s recording, Paul McCreesh’s uses all-British soloists. Ainsley and Maltman are not heavyweight voices and they deliver a very personal, almost intimate view of the Owen settings, which works extremely well. Ainsley is perhaps the more engaging of the pair. Soprano Susan Gritton is far removed from Vishnevskaya’s sound – she is rather more in the Heather Harper mould – but still sings with great authority and easily rides McCreesh’s massive combined forces from the UK and Poland (over 350 musicians are listed in the booklet notes). McCreesh is in total command of his forces, and they are ever alert and responsive to his direction. With a superb complementary essay and imaginative packaging, this a very attractive alternative to the composer’s own recording.

Jansons’s Bavarian forces come from an entirely different tradition to Britten. Technically, the chorus and orchestra are very fine, though occasionally Jansons’s reading can seem a little perfunctory in what is in fact a live performance. The excellent Mark Padmore and Christian Gerhaher execute the Owen cycle embedded within the liturgy with consummate skill and are exceptionally involving, even if the balance rather favours them over the chamber orchestra. American soprano Emily Magee, who sounds as if she has been wrongly positioned by Jansons at the front of the platform rather than with the choir (the photograph in the booklet confirms this), is imperious and tender in turns. Despite their considerable reputation, the Tölzer Boys Choir offers an idiosyncratic account of their music.

As might be expected from a conductor so immersed in the world of opera, Pappano offers a highly dramatic account of Britten’s masterpiece, reminiscent of Carlo Maria Giulini, whose conducting of War Requiem Britten so admired. Ian Bostridge, probably the finest contemporary exponent of the tenor role, brings his acute intelligence to bear on Owen’s timeless poetic warnings. Thomas Hampson is quite Bostridge’s equal, and throughout both display their credentials as lieder singers of the first rank. Their singing of ‘Strange Meeting’ is most moving. Anna Netrebko is very much in the Vishnevskaya mould, though her colours are warmer and more inviting. Pappano steers his St Cecilia forces brilliantly, producing an account (taken from concerts last year in Rome) that is as shattering as the composer’s own. it also has the advantage of occupying a single CD. Highly recommended.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica


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