Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is English church music with a twist. When in 1961 he was commissioned to write music for the rededication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, he conceived the unique idea of combining war poems of Wilfred Owen with the Latin Mass for the Dead. Both Owen (who was killed in action in the last week of World War I) and Britten were pacifists trying to make a statement. The interspersed texts work so well together, and the music and singing are so effective, as to make the work a heart-felt, powerful statement against the horridness of war, and a call to Christian pity, love and peace.
The composition calls for tenor and baritone singing the war poems, with chamber orchestra; soprano and chorus singing the liturgical parts, with full orchestra; and a boys' choir and organ, so placed as to sound far away and ethereal. The score itself is twentieth century music, original, moving and dramatic.
This re-issue of the opus includes 50 minutes of rehearsals, recorded without Britten's knowledge. Fascinating in themselves, these tracks more significantly tell us what the composer-conductor wanted to accomplish as he directed the performers. As Donald Mitchell has it in the enclosed booklet, Britten's intent - one "fundamental to the original concept and interpretation of the work" - was to "shock audiences out of a passive acceptance of the annihilation of war." Britten urges, "Lots of words - think what they mean." In the Dies Irae he asks the chorus to sound terrified; in the Sanctus he demands a confused sound - "Make it sound like a crowd coming at you." He wants the boys' choir to sing more ethereally - "Imagine yourselves in heaven, a long way away from here."
Tenor Peter Pears and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing the parts of soldiers on opposite sides of the war. In their careers, both earned high praise for proficient performances, and no more needs to be said here. Of the three soloists, the one who caught my attention most was soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. When I first heard her singing 'Liber scriptus proferetur' (part of the Dies Irae), her piercing voice gave me a slight jolt, unexpected as it was. But soon I realized that her intensity reflected the meaning of the words: she was singing of the judgment of the world, when "nothing will remain unavenged." It certainly fitted Britten's purpose. In the rehearsals we hear him repeatedly saying, "It's terrific, it's marvelous." At another point he says, "I'm moved by her singing." He addresses one of her concerns by telling her, "But you can do it, most sopranos can't." In fact, he had written the soprano parts specially for her, knowing beforehand the range and quality of her voice. In the 'Lacrimosa' her singing is indeed so beautiful it pierces to the heart.
There are several versions of Britten's War Requiem to choose from, but there is little reason not to go for this one. It is authoritatively interpreted by the composer himself, performed by first class musicians and singers, and reproduced in good stereo sound; add to all that the important rehearsal tracks. A work of substance, I have no hesitation giving it the highest recommendation.