Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, one of the twentieth century's greatest choral works, was first performed in May 1962 upon the consecration of Coventry's St. Michael's Cathedral, erected next to the ruins of the medieval Cathedral destroyed in a German air raid in November 1940. Following the composer's own recording with the LSO (1963), a number of fine modern readings have been available on CD for quite some time, including Simon Rattle's performance with the CBSO (1983) and Richard Hickox' LSO production (1991). A DVD release was long overdue. Arthaus documents - in excellent audio and brilliant blu-ray HD video - the 50th anniversary performance of the work, recorded in Coventry Cathedral on 30 May 2012. Soloists Erin Wall, Mark Padmore and Hanno Müller-Brachmann join the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Chorus under the direction of the eminently talented young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons. The backdrop of gaunt ruins and the severe setting eloquently underline the Requiem's passionate plea against warfare and for peace on earth - and perhaps the fact that humanity is still anything but at peace today.
The War Requiem is constructed in two huge concentric circles. Embedded in the Latin text of the liturgy for the dead are nine poems by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), British soldier and poet, who was killed shortly before the end of World War I. The poems vividly portray the horrors of war and are sung by the tenor and baritone soloists (accompanied by a smaller chamber group), while the soprano soloist, either alone or with the choir, intones parts of the liturgy. The youth chorus, strategically placed at the Cathedral's opposite end, is heard only three times: in relatively tranquil and peaceful parts. Britten's score is moderately "modern", never atonal, characterized by sharp rhythmic accents, fluctuating harmonies, brief melodic passages and ever-present immense energy. Brass and percussion are often prominent in their portrayal of conflict, brutality and grief. From the initial disquieting chords of the "Requiem aeternam" through the cataclysmic "Dies irae", the militant "Offertorium", the enigmatic "Sanctus" and "Benedictus" to the final "Libera me" with the quietly consoling "In paradisum deducant", this is an incredibly disturbing and equally moving work. Highly recommended to those not quite familiar with it: the journey of repeated listening will be rewarding.
The soloists, choristers and, to a lesser extent, the orchestra musicians are quite challenged by this score and its great demands. In the present recording, all participants excel to the highest standards. The soloists, visibly involved in their parts, shine out consistently, as do the members of the choirs, and the CBSO plays like a world-class ensemble. Andris Nelsons - who frequently consults the score - does a superb job in conveying every detail and nuance as well as the Requiem's spirit as a monumental whole. The profound silence following the performance speaks for itself. This is a keeper.