Monday 16 September 2013

Clarity and Strength: Britten - War Requiem

Britten War Requiem - Paul McCreesh. SIGCD 340
This new recording of Britten's War Requiem is the latest of Paul McCreesh's recordings of large-scale oratorios on the Winged Lion label. Here McCreesh conducts the Gabrieli Consort, Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme (Chethams Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir), trebles of the Choir of New College Oxford, Gabrieli Players, with soloists Susan Gritton, John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman.

Like his previous recordings (Berlioz's Grande Messe de Morts and Mendelssohn's Elijah), the two central planks of the choral forces are the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme and Wrocslaw Philharmonic Choir. The Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme involves singers from four youth choirs,  Chethams Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, with which Gabrieli collaborates. Gabrieli's relationship with the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir developed as a result of McCreesh's being director of the festival Wroclaw Cantans from 2006 to 2012.

Any recording of Britten's huge work is inevitably something of a labour of love, certainly you get the impression that the recording was a special and remarkable enterprise. Whilst McCreesh's reputation in the UK is mainly as a period performance specialist, his range is far wider than this. As we have a tendency to pigeonhole performers, it is good to have testimony to McCreesh's talents in 20th century music.

The strength of the casting extends beyond the soloists (Susan Gritton, John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman) to the instrumental forces where the main orchestra is led by Jacqueline Shave (who leads the Britten Sinfonia) and the chamber ensemble includes the Carducci Quartet, oboist Nicholas Daniel and clarinettist Joy Farrall.

The principal characteristics of the performance are a combination of clarity and strength, with very fine dynamic range. This is apparent from the opening moments of the Requiem Aeternam, complemented by the clear bright sound of the boys from New College Oxford. The boys are surrounded by a lovely aural halo; Britten wanted them to sound distant. John Mark Ainsley combines clarity of words with an intensity of line in What Passing-Bells. His performance is quite far from that of Peter Pears in style, but still managing to be very English. When the choir returns for the Kyrie they make a glorious hush (they number around 175 in total).

The Dies Irae opens in crisp and quiet fashion, and is quite gripping. Maltman sing Bugles sang with great beauty, giving a lovely shape to the phrases, but with a a quiet strength. Susan Gritton is quite remarkable in Liber scriptus. In a role written originally for Vishnevskaya, Gritton gives the music just the right hard edged brilliance that it needs, but with a lovely feel for the combination of word and phrase. Ainsley and Maltman, in the duet Out there, make the piece rather dramatic with less of the Kurt Weill-ish cabaret feel that some performance give it.

The Recordare is profoundly beautiful, with the choir giving it a lovely sense of line and great strength, then the Confutatis has a crisp intensity. Maltman is riveting in We slowly lifted up, giving a powerful performance with strong feeling for the words. The Dies Irae is gripping and thrilling, but without the confusion you can get, McCreesh brings an enormous clarity of texture. In the Lachrymosa Gritten again gives the music just  the right edge and a fine sense of line, making it very moving. Ainsley sings Move him into the sun on a thread of voice, combining beauty with a great sense of communication. McCreesh weaves the threads of the conclusion into something of hushed wonder.

The boys bring clarity, purity and focus to the Offertorium which contrasts with the chorus's fantastic impetus and crisp rhythmic precision in Sd signifer sanctus Michael. Ainsley and Maltman have a lively attention to the words in So Abram Rose, with some lovely solos from the chamber orchestra, and then the appearance of the angel makes the spine tingle. The alternation between the soloists and the boys makes for a moving conclusion.

Gritton is simply thrilling in the Sanctus, and the chorus makes a wonderful sussuration in the Pleni sunt coeli with a thrilling crescendo to the shattering climax of the Hosanna. In the Benedictus Gritton is subtle but I did not think she has quite enough Vishnevskaya style edge here.

In After the blast, Maltman gives clarity and intensity to Owen's word's and gives a highly intelligent performance. But I find this one of the most problematic of Owen's poems, and the warmth and beauty of Maltman's tone don't make it quite bleak enough for me.

In the Agnus Dei, Ainsley really makes both the words and music count in One ever hangs. The combination of the beauty of Ainsley's tone and the hushed intensity of the chorus make a painfully intense and austerely beautiful movement.

The Libera Me opens with a feeling of intense anxiety which gradually builds, Gritton is intense and vibrantly passionate.  McCreesh really twists the knife and makes every note count to the shattering climax. Ainsley opens It seemed that out of battle I escaped out of nothing, a strong line and sense of the words combining to make something really special. Maltman sings with profound beauty and a feel for the words.  There is a really concentrated feel to it. I thought at first that Maltman misses the deep mystical nature of the piece, but there is wonderful quiet intensity to I am the enemy you killed, my friend. There is a clarity to the multilayered ending, the first time that all the forces of the work sing together, and McCreesh weaves the layers into something very moving and consoling.

The set is handsomely packaged, with an article about the work, full text plus a series of reminiscences from people about their first encounter with the work including Susan Hill, Edward Higginbottom and a number of others who were at the firs performance, illustrated with photographs from the First World War. My only complaint is that the tracks are very large, one per movement so that the Dies Irae is a single 27 minute track. 

Inevitably any new recording has to stand against Britten's own, though there is a sense that this is sui generis. On this new disc McCreesh creates a really distinctive feel to the performance. To describe it, I return to the the words clarity, strength and perhaps austerity. It is not a warm, romantic performance, but a very intense, powerful one.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1973) - War Requiem (1962) [84.05]
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir
Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme
Trebles of the Choir of New College Oxford
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Susan Gritton (soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Paul McCreesh (conductor)

Recorded Watford Colosseum, 5-9 January 2013
Birmingham Town Hall 26 February 2013
Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 15 March 2013
WINGED LION/SIGNUM SIGCD340 2 CD's [37.20, 46.45]

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