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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful 50th anniversary tribute to Britten's own tribute to 'the pity of war' as was his intent, 17 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: Britten: War Requiem (Erin Wall/ Mark Padmore/ Hanno Muller-Brachmann) (Arthaus: 108070) [Blu-ray] [2012][Region Free] (Blu-ray)
This production, performance and recording of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem marks the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of the new Coventry Cathedral, built to replace the medieval cathedral destroyed during the bombing of Coventry during WW2. The first performance was also played by the Birmingham orchestra as on this recording and featured an English tenor, a German baritone and an English soprano as commemorated here too. The original Russian soprano was not allowed to perform by the Russian government of the time because of the perceived political nature of the work.

Britten made a particularly famous recording of the work within a few months with the LSO and with the intended original trio of soloists. This went on to achieve a quarter of a million sales, my copy being one of them. The work had been set as one of the works to be studied in detail as part of the music `A' level exam that I was engaged upon. I was so struck by the setting of Owen's poems that I then bought a volume of his complete poems that I still own.

Britten's own recording was such a landmark both as a performance and as a recording that, even now, it represents a major challenge to any new recording of the work. That this anniversary recording is so successful is a remarkable achievement. That it is also by no means inferior to that of Britten's is even more remarkable even though there are some major differences which must be mentioned and which affect the balance of the overall effect.

The two main changes relate to the much slower tempo of the Dies Irae in particular and to the Sanctus to a somewhat lesser degree. This may be the result of the venue with the large reverberation factor to consider or maybe just a difference in emphasis. As a result, whatever the reason, the two sections do not drive ahead dramatically as they do with Britten, but instead achieve an effect of weighty power instead. To my mind this is just as appropriate as the performance still manages to sustain tension, just a different sort.

The soloists are all excellent with Mark Padmore communicating the Owen poetry with complete commitment and with tenor singing of the highest quality. He has a rounder tonal characteristic to that of Peter Pears. Hanno Muller-Brachmann makes for a fine baritone soloist who also sings with fine tone and without the accent problem detectable in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's delivery in Britten's recording. Erin Wall equally has a much more rounded tone than Galina Vishnevskaya on Britten's recording where her strident tones were always somewhat controversial. The choir is excellent in all respects as is the CBSO Youth Chorus.

Apart from the two tempi variants as mentioned above, Andris Nelsons adopts an approach that differs from that of Britten by being rather less driven but just as dramatically effective. Coupled with the benefits of the warmer tonal characteristics of his soloists and the qualities of the far newer recording, the whole effect is rather easier on the ear and allows the listener/viewer to appreciate the message of the Requiem even more. This was certainly true of my wife who has now changed from being a `refuser' to a supporter entirely on the basis of this performance and recording. It seems to me that Nelsons has managed to catch the mood of today's audience and to provide a performance of the War Requiem that relates strongly to that. Perhaps this is less strident but more humane - a difference of historical period?

The recording is visually strikingly crisp with wonderful detail of objects such as tubular bells, through more general shots such as larger groups of singers to distant views such as the youth choir positioned at the rear of the cathedral in front of the famous tapestry. This is one of the best visual recordings I have ever seen and, for me, marks a new level of visual technology. The sound is of equal merit, effortlessly encompassing the dynamic tonal range of Britten's endlessly imaginative scoring. In my opinion this is a triumph of the recording art as at present. It is presented in DD 5.1 and stereo. The surround sound makes telling use of the rear positioning of the youth choir as well as greatly aiding general clarity and sonic spread.

This is a remarkable achievement by all concerned and is a wonderful 50th anniversary tribute to the new cathedral, to the composition itself and to `the pity of war' as Britten himself said. I am sure that it will communicate strongly on those terms.

In summary therefore I would suggest that this is a performance and recording exactly appropriate for the current times that we live in and, as such, fully deserves to be seriously considered as a strong contender for purchase.

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Review Details

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Reviewer

I. Giles
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 10 REVIEWER)   

Location: Argyll, Scotland

Top Reviewer Ranking: 9