on 28 March 2011
It is a pity that the two reviews so far concentrate solely on Britten's War Requiem. This recording gives us the opportunity to hear Arthur Bliss's Morning Heroes, a remarkable work born from the composer's sufferings during and after the First World War. This excellent performance makes one long for more public airings for the work. Morning Heroes is powerful and unusual in conception as well as deeply moving. It was imaginative to place it next to Britten's Requiem, allowing us to see how two composers from different generations and with very different experiences of world war responded to such human tragedy.
It was very enterprising of EMI to put these two works into the same CD package. It would have been easier and less imaginative to have coupled the War Requiem with other Britten works such as Rattle's recording of the Sinfonia da Requiem. By coupling the work with Arthur Bliss' Morning Heroes, the listener is given a fantastic opportunity to hear two very different responses to war by two English composers. I will review both works separately.
Bliss wrote Morning Heroes in 1930 after suffering a number of nightmares that had him reflecting on his World War I experiences as an army officer. His younger brother [whom he considered had great artistic talent] had died in the conflict. Morning Heroes is a symphony for narrator, choir and orchestra which has texts reflecting four different wars; i. the Trojan Wars with passages from Homer's Illiad, ii. an unknown Chinese conflict from 1,200 years ago, iii. the American Civil War with passages from Walt Whitman's poem, Drum Taps and finally iv. the First World War with poems by Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols. It is a shame that no texts were including in this particular package because there are lots of words to get through.
Unlike the Britten work, Morning Heroes is not about the anger and pity of war. Instead, the work exemplifies noble self sacrifice. It is a far less popular work than Britten's War Requiem. I must say that as much as I admire the skill and imagination that went into the work, I was not particularly moved nor did I find the work particularly memorable. Since initially writing this review, I have listened to other works by Bliss, such a the Colour Symphony, Checkmate and Adam Zero and have found them to be wonderful pieces to listen to.
The performance is very good. Sir Charles Groves was very good at this kind of work. John Westbrook is a superb narrator in the passage from the Illiad and the Wilfred Owen poem. The choir is good but cannot match the sound quality achieved by the CBSO chorus in the Britten work.
There is little point in going into the background of the War Requiem as it is a far better known work. I recall the initial release of this recording in 1984, which was a brave venture. Until it was made, Britten's own recording was the only generally available one. That recording was authentic, with the 3 soloists that the composer had chosen. The recording's sound quality was also very high. Why release another version?
I think the recoridng has an equally authentic quality. The CBSO was the orchestra that played at the first performance in Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and there were members of the orchestra and choir on the recording who took place in that performance. Furthermore, the tenor soloist of the recording, Robert Tear, had worked closely with the composer and the original tenor soloist, Peter Pears.
For all its outstanding qualities, there were some aspects of Britten's recording that I am less keen on. I find Galina Vishnevskaya a bit squally and prefer Elizabeth Soderstrom here. She sang more lyrically but with the same dramatic command. Similarly, I found Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's english pronunciation a bit idiosynchratic. Thomas Allen is a fantastic singer in this recording but ultimately I don't think he made as much of the words and music as Fischer Dieskau.
Robert Tear did a great job with the tenor solos. I still prefer Peter Pears in his recording but this is a very fine in its own way.
Simon Rattle did a fantastic job with this recording and I have no criticism to make over him at all. The CBSO chorus too was a fantastic group on this recording. I am very happy to have it in my collection.
on 4 December 2010
Having experience this wonderful piece live in Oslo, I was inspired to seek out a better recording than Britten's own. While no one can surpass Britten's own recordings in terms of musicality, the recording quality is alas not up to scratch for modern hifi enthusiasts. This piece is an exceptional challenge to record, comprising a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra, men's choir, women's choir, children's choir, organ and three soloists.
I listened to four of the most recent releases, including Brittens own, and pick this one as the best overall performance and recording. I believe it truly captures the piece's extraordinary range and dynamics.
on 12 July 2014
In spite of what some may say, this requiem is a profoundly religious work of music and the fact that the traditional Latin text is vastly interspersed with poems by Wilfred Owen does not take the religious nature of the requiem away. In fact it even widens it by making the requiem less liturgical and more reflective, spiritual and universal.
The first element is that these poems bring into the requiem a deep reflection on the nature of the First World War, its deeply inhuman nature that made it treat men as "cattle" worthy of a human sacrifice multiplied into millions for the sake of nothing at all except maybe some private ambitions. And yet these poems are looking at the horror of this war from the inner point of view of the soldier who fought and died there, from his post mortem point of view as if the poem was bringing back to life the men it evokes. This gives to the requiem a dimension it generally does not have. It is not the audience who is begging god for peace and quiet for the dead but it is the dead themselves who are demanding this peace and quiet in death that means respect and recollection from the people who are entering this evocation of the dead soldiers, far more than begging for it.
The music is sort of divided into two registers. The Latin sections are sung by the chorus and the boys accompanied by the big symphonic orchestra and the organ. It is within this big rendering that the soprano intervenes contrasting with the full orchestra and the two choruses. She has to sing out because the main chorus is more or less merged into the music. The boy chorus is different because for Benjamin Britten there is an obvious symbolism in the boys themselves because their male voices are the voices of the children that were sent to fight in this WW1. These boys are also symbolical in the whole work of Benjamin Britten who often had boys in his stories and operas. The second register is the poems themselves sung by the tenor and the baritone with a smaller orchestra that could be considered as a chamber orchestra. The tenor and the baritone can easily sing over the music and evenat one time a capella.
From the very start you have a tremendous beauty created by the sounds of "bells" in the music, bells that are tolling of course but their sound is light, high-pitched and in a way not tolling for death but tolling for life. They are like the call from ahigh, from heaven, from god to the dead men to hurry and come where they deserve to be. On the other hand the main instrumental music is somber and dark, deep and at times lugubrious.
But the music emphasizes the beauty of the poems based on strange metaphors and very resonant alliterations or rhymes. To make "bells" and "shells" rhyme is very powerful since the bells as I have said are the call of god and the shells are the call of death. And that is such a merging of the positive and negative sides of things that is the dominant trait of this poetry. When he speaks of the falling night in the trenches and says "each slow dusk [is] a drawing-down of blinds" we have that soft image that evokes going to sleep, resting in the comfort and warmth of a bed and a bedroom on one hand and the death that eventually and inescapably will come in these trenches sooner or later. In the same way the dead "boys . . . by the river-side" are "mothered by sleep" and this sleep is the sleep of death. Death becomes the mother that takes care of the dead after death, as opposed to the male Death that is reaping the battle fields, harvesting his crop of bodies and souls.
And that relation with "Death" is also ambiguous and the music amplifies that ambiguity by using the repetition of some words and the wavy advance of the notes that wax and wane in and out. We could think these soldiers, the preys of the war, could and even should hate "Death" and yet they don't. They play with him, they entertain with him. He is their master and clown. "Death was never enemy of ours." And yet at the same time, in the same poem the text says "when each proud fighter brags He wars on Death - for Life; not men - for flags." This text assumes a contradiction since Death is here the opponent at least, the challenger for sure, if not the enemy, and Life can only be won by defeating Death in a way or another. But this strange contradiction supports and sustains the idea that the "proud fighter" did not war against "men" and "for flags." The stake for these "proud fighters" is not the war itself but some kind of living principle that will provide them with survival if they do not die, or with eternal sleep and rest if they do die.
That's the meaning of the reference to Abraham, the last character in the Old Testament who considered human sacrifice, worse the sacrifice of his own and only Jewish son, as natural if God asked for it. The son himself might be astonished by the absence of a sacrificial animal but he does not protest when he is tied down and strapped to the sacrificial pyre. For him too dying as a "burnt-offering" is natural, acceptable, an honor. But we are not afraid since we know a ram is going to be provided by God, and the intervention of an angel is leading to some extremely soft and aerial, heaven-like even music that is crowned by a perfect line of iambic verse and "iambic music": "Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him." And yet this angelic beauty is blown up into pieces by the reality of the old men who govern these countries into a war that is eternal in the fact it never comes to an end. And this human sacrifice that negates the promise of Abraham that the world was to be more humane is performed "one by one" and the mass excuse, the excuse of mass murder is not even possible since it is performed one at a time, one after the other, one on one and one by one: the death of one, for one and by one. Death is totally individualized in the very fact that it is made anonymous by the shells and the Big Berthas of both sides.
This war is thus a sacrilege that goes against any hope and human promise or target. That leads to a totally beast-haunted vision, that of the tigress that inhabits the soldiers who run and do not "break ranks, though nations trek from progress. . . [in] this retreating world into vain citadels that are not walled." There is no future in this totally open world that leads to no improvement. And that's when the text becomes divine by going a capella:
"I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I know you in this dark: [short music intervention] for so you frowned yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. [short music intervention] I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. [short music intervention]"
But this "friendly" meeting of the men from both sides, the killed and his killer is only possible after this very killing when the killer joins the killed in death. The final musical burden can come till the end of the requiem, "Let us sleep now." This conclusion is extremely ambiguous. It may be a call to the audience to let them sleep now and thus not to disturb them with more rites, rituals, symbolical sacrifices and musical executions. Let bygones be bygones. But it might be the call of these dead men to god to let them rest in peace in their death, by even forgetting them and not disturbing their sleep with vainglorious references.
This extremely ambiguous feeling I get out of the music is of course personal but also sustained by the music itself. The music does not require me to take part in this human sacrifice, nor in this human ritual recollection, nor in the haunting memory of the brutality, bestiality and backward imbecility of the human species. The music takes me beyond this in a heaven-like resting field after the battle field where all the victims can be brothers, friends and comrades in no arms at last and forever. The music that is so powerful when depicting the fighting becomes so inspiring and enlightening when depicting what comes after the war, unluckily only for the dead.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU