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STILL REMAINS THE BEST
on 22 August 2006
This was the piece of music that first really turned me on to classical music, listening to the very first performance from Coventry Cathedral on a small tranny radio. What I failed to realise then was that this massive impact was achieved by brilliant structural simplicity.
The whole work is effectively a study on the tritone, the 'diabolus in musica', that most disturbing and unstable of intervals. From the bells at the start to the harmonically ambiguous endings of the first and second movements and of the entire work; from the alternating tonics of the boys' Te Decet Hymnus to the alternating tintinnabulations of the soprano's Sanctus; from the fanfares of the Dies Irae to the two halves of the tenor's ineffable Dona Nobis Pacem at the end of the Agnus Dei. All these and countless other examples revolve around or grow out of the tritone. And what better musical image for war could there be than those two most irreconcilable notes in the scale?
Then, of course, there is the inspired concept of juxtaposing the hieratic incantations of the Latin Mass for the Dead with the burning anger of Wilfred Owen's First World War poems. There are, in fact, three tiers of performers in the War Requiem - the boys' choir and chamber organ, objective and dissociated in the distance; the soprano, chorus and orchestra singing the Latin Mass at, as it were, the centre of things; and the tenor and baritone with the chamber orchestra delivering Owen's bitter poems in the intimate and confidential foreground. The different perspectives of these three groups are a vital aspect of any performance and are ideally realised by producer, John Culshaw (of Golden Ring fame) and his team on this premiere recording.
After that first performance and subsequent ones in London, this recording was awaited with great anticipation. But even the most optimistic marketing man at Decca wasn't prepared for the overnight success of the enterprise. Classical music albums - especially of new music - weren't supposed to sell like that. From the iconic (and, at the time, unique) simplicity of the cover to the superlative standard of the recorded sound, never mind the quality of the performance itself, it outstripped the highest expectations.
And what of this performance? These were the performers for whom the piece was written - from the three soloists (specifically, a Russian, an Englishman and a German) to the inimitable Jimmy Blades in the chamber orchestra's percussion department. Famously, the Soviet Minster of Culture prevented Vishnevskaya from performing at the premiere and Heather Harper had to stand in and learn her part in just 10 days. By the time she recorded the part, her voice was not what it was in 1962. The purity of tone and the anguished commitment of her singing at moments like the Lacrymosa that one remembers from those first performances are very different from the more distanced interpretation with a touch of Slavic wobble that we get from Vishnevskaya. Different, but not necessarily better or worse. Pears and Fischer-Dieskau are, dare I say, peerless. Glorious singing from both: human, bitter, angry, touching, heartbreaking (Move Him into the Sun), heart-restoring as they duet the two dead enemies of Strange Meeting to sleep. The touch of a German accent in Fischer-Dieskau's otherwise immaculate English puts a new perspective on many of the poems that fall to his part (not just Strange Meeting) - but, after all, the Germans must have shared all the same feelings that Owen expressed so poignantly in his poetry.
As for Britten's control over all these forces (the first time, I think, that he hadn't shared the conducting, usually with Meredith Davies), it is as masterly as you would expect from the creator of it all - and one who was an illuminating conductor, too, both in his own and in others' music.
There have been many other recordings since this one. Some may have matched it in some departments some of the time. None can touch it for its inspired expression of a masterpiece, fresh from the making.