For decades, Bavarian Radio has supplied the state Radio Sym. Orch. with consistently impressive sound, and here they go out of their way to capture the War Requiem's three-dimensional sound world, with different placements for the main orchestra, chamber orchestra, two chorus (including a boys' choir) and the three soloists. From the opening measures the recorded sound, even through two channels, is exceptionally atmospheric. Another good omen at the outset is Jansons's quick tempo; clearly he's not going to fall into the trap of lugubrious sentiment. Within minutes we hear Mark Padmore's passionate delivery of Wilfred Owen's first poem - we are off to a very good start, and by the end, the experience of listening becomes harrowing and exciting by turns.
Although instantly greeted as a masterpiece in 1962 when premiered at the reopening of the bomb-ruined Coventry Cathedral, the War Requiem is emotionally elusive. Is it protest or elegy? Does it view death in war as horrifying or poetically worth enshrining? Of course, the same questions faced Britten as a pacifist who met with considerable contempt and hostility when he and Peter Pears fled to America during WW II (they came back home before the cessation of hostilities, as did Sir Thomas Beecham). The London Sym. made a classic Decca recording immediately after the premiere, and their remake last year (on LSO Live) under Gianandrea Noseda to mark the Requiem's fiftieth anniversary was operatic and heartfelt. No other recorded version is quite as thrilling, although in concert Mstislav Rostropovich led heart-rending performances ("private" recordings can sometimes be found online).
Vocally, it's spooky how close Jansons' solo trio comes to the original. Gerhaher could be Fischer-Dieskau reborn in his strong, articulate delivery (a welcome change from his usual understatement); Padmore is Pears's equal in intensity, while Magee, coping with a treacherously difficult part, is nearly as strained and unsteady as Vishnevskaya but eloquent. I think I might like the chorus better here than in London; they are flexible, expressive, and beautifully in tune. Jansons is as exciting as Noseda, but not operatic. He accomplishes wonders through precision and steady emotional pressure. (Dare one say it? This is one score where not having an English conductor helps, as Noseda and Rostropovich already proved. )
I really can't thrust a straw between the Noseda and Jansons recordings, both are so riveting. Here the spectacular recorded sound must be counted as the best I've ever heard in this work, but then, the London performance drew more tears. Padmore is unforgettable, but so was Ian Bostridge for Noseda. You choose.
P.S. - I only noticed later that the Wilfrid Owen poem, "it seemed that out of battle I escaped," Padmore sings both verses where in the Britten recording, they are divided between tenor and baritone.
Emily Magee (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Chor and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks & Tölz Boys' Choir, Mariss Jansons