I imagine that before the post-World War II recordings boom, most people experienced music in concert, carrying their impressions of a piece from one concert to the next. Nowadays, we get to know pieces by listening repeatedly to a recording. And there’s the danger that we might be imprinted by that recording, and use it as an unfair yardstick for judging other performances.
This thought came to mind before today’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem. I discovered this work in high school and I have loved it ever since–the combination of the Requiem mass and the shattering poetry of Wilfred Owen, given life through Britten’s mastery of text-setting, which both realizes and extends the emotional intensity of the poetry.
My sense of the piece is firmly rooted in the composer’s recording for Decca, widely regarded as a classic–and with a striking cover:
Britten made this recording shortly after the premiere, and it looms over subsequent performances. He wrote the tenor, baritone, and soprano parts specifically for Sir Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Vishnevskaya (each drawn from different sides in World War II), who all perform on the recording. And Britten was a good enough conductor to realize the recording as an aural representation of his intentions.
So, listening to this concert, would I be able to hear the piece with fresh ears, or would I always be comparing Noseda to Britten, Ian Bostridge to Pears, Simon Keenlyside to Fischer-Dieskau, Sabina Cvilak to Vishnevskaya? (Never mind the other ones I’ve heard: Rattle, Giulini, and Hickox.) As it turns out, I was overwhelmed by the piece as never before, even as I found myself missing some elements from the recording.
Gianandrea Noseda’s tempos were a few notches faster than Britten’s, and rock-steady. This gave the work an urgency and cohesiveness that belied its breadth; the Dies irae, in particular, proceeded in one long span, each episode moving seamlessly to the next. For the entire eighty-five minutes of the performance Noseda had me spellbound. But this steadiness sometimes deflated the work’s dramatic impact. In particular, the brass interjections that open the Dies irae followed mechanically upon each other, whereas Britten takes a tiny bit more time with them, so that they echo across vast distances. (Also, anyone notice that Noseda’s physical gestures occasionally resemble those of his mentor Valery Gergiev?)
The soprano part is more traditionally operatic than the others, and Sabrina Cvilak did a fine job filling that role. Ian Bostridge’s bright, high tone is somewhat similar to that of Peter Pears, and his delivery is certainly different from your garden-variety opera/oratorio singer. Yet . . . does it boil down to a series of tired mannerisms–lots of parlando and spitting out final consonants–or is he really interpreting the music? I thought the latter; his range of expression was arresting, from hushed pianissimo to violent declamation.
Simon Keenlyside relied on his basic, beefy sound for the earlier poems, while Fischer-Dieksau’s delivery in the recording is miraculous. In “Bugles sang,” Fischer-Dieskau transforms his timbre and vibrato subtly from note to note, yet spins out Britten’s meandering melodic line without a break, and reserves everything for the climax (“Bowed by the shadow of the morrow . . .”). Keenlyside just sang the whole thing straight through. But “Strange Meeting” was another story altogether; Keenlyside was deeply moving when he sang these unforgettable lines:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .
The chorus was magnificent: diction was razor-sharp, the sound had blend and weight, and the chorus sang with a wide range of color and dynamics, not the constant mezzo-forte that sometimes afflicts choral ensembles. And the orchestra was beyond praise. Hearing the LSO and the New York Philharmonic play in the same hall in the same week is instructive; while the Philharmonic is a powerhouse of volume combined with clarity, the brass are less dominant in the LSO, while not lacking anything when it comes to incisiveness or color. In fact, the more even balance between sections in the LSO ends up creating a more variegated sound, where the brasses can blaze out without obliterating everything else.
Britten himself said that recorded music “is not part of true musical experience,” and that music requires “some clarification of the ears and some sharpening of the instincts”–better achieved at a concert hall than by simply pressing “Play.” So, even though I am imprinted with Britten’s recording, it didn’t stand in the way of hearing a different realization of the score, and being overwhelmed by it. The London performances with Noseda have apparently been recorded; I don’t know if I’ll buy this when released, but I’ll always remember the concert. During the opening bars of the Libera me, someone in the balcony above me was audibly sobbing. I, too, was shaken to my core, and that’s as it should be.
–The Highly Opinionated Companion