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CD Reviews: Two different flavours of choral catharsis from London's best orchestras

By John Terauds on May 24, 2012

The new Coventry Cathedral sits next to the ruins of the old, destroyed by German bombs during World War II. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was premiered at the completion of the new building, 50 years ago next week.

Antonin Dvorák’s setting of the Stabat Mater is to Good Friday what Giusepe Verdi’s Requiem is to the funeral Mass. Big, public, cathartic, it is an exercise in collective soul cleansing through the sheer, collective power of a couple of hundred instrumentalists and singers.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a monumental expression of people’s collective hope that the horrors of two world wars would never be repeated. The 50th anniversary of its Coventry Cathedral premiere is coming up on Wednesday.

Dvorák uses the nothing-exceeds-like-excess means of the late 19th century to set a Medieval sacred text. Britten, in mid-20th century style, assembles a patchwork of texts and musical influences with the absolute minimum in compositional gestures.

Both, in their own way, pierce the soul, then offer only token solace at the end.

Both pieces receive live-concert recordings by London’s two best modern orchestras, using the finest of means. Both albums are out on the organizations’ successful private labels.

Dvorák Stabat Mater (LPO)

This is a deeply satisfying performance of a large-scale choral work that deserves to be experienced live in these parts.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir are at once expansive and taut under conductor Neeme Järvi. The soloists — soprano Janice Watson, mezzo Dagmar Pecková, tenor Peter Auty and bass Pete Rose — are exceptional.

But it is the piece itself that satisfies the most — especially if you love a blend of symphony and voice on a grand scale.

This is not the folk-tune-spinning, gently dancing Antonin Dvorák that fans of his chamber music adore. This is a man expressing deep, personal grief using operatic means.

Because the text is in Latin rather than Czech, there are few clues here that this is not Verdi or Mascagni. The dramatic opening key of B minor, chromatically descending bass line and swelling chorus set a melodramatic tone that continues unabated for 10 sections, concluding in a gigantic Amen that bows to the traditional counterpoint of the composer’s German forebears.

The composer was 34 when daughter Josefa died in 1875, a couple of days after being born. Two summers later, the family lost their next daughter and, shortly afterwards, their son Otakar.

Dvorák, a devout Roman Catholic, channelled much of his emotional turmoil into the Stabat Mater, a 13th century text in which Mary contemplates the death of her son Jesus on the Cross.

It took a while for the busy composer to finish it. It was premiered, fittingly enough, by the opera company in Prague just before Christmas, 1880. It became a popular work, helping cement Dvorák’s reputation (the CD liner notes say the composer himself conducted a performance — already the second in London — at Royal Albert Hall in 1884).

The recorded sound — not always fine in live recordings — is clear and expansive in London’s Royal Festival Hall, further complementing this impressive work.

For more details, as well as audio samples, click here.

As a sample of what the music is like, here’s the opening section, followed by section 8, “Fac ut portem Christi mortem,” in a not-bad performance by the young people of the Royal Conservatory of Madrid, last year (I like the gilded altar screen at the Church of Sts Theresa and Isabel):

Britten, War Requiem (LSO Live)

“Searing” is the only way to describe Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem — more oratorio than funeral Mass. The work is made all the more potent by the interspersing of the Latin text with poems by Wilfrid Owen, killed in action a week before the end of the First World War.

The result is musical drama as gripping as anything Britten ever wrote — and he was a genius at evoking psychological terror out of a few strokes of a bow, a tap of a snare drum, or the trill of a woodwind.

The opening “Requiem eternam,” normally a prayer of eternal rest for the dead, sounds and feels more like a threat or a curse. Redemption comes only much, much later, after we, the listeners, have been wrung dry by reminders of the futility of war.

It is after the English and German soldier have met in the afterlife that rest wafts in on a gorgeous cloud of orchestra and voice that gradually dissipates down to an eight-note choral chant of “Requiescant in pace,” that, in turn, fades into a whispered Amen.

Operatic master — and a favourite visitor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra — Gianandrea Noseda leads a fine performance made spectacular with a star cast of singers, starting with soloists Ian Bostridge, Simon Keenlyside and soprano Sabina Civilak. The LSO Chorus is joined by the excellent treble voices of the Choir of Eltham College.

The single flaw with this two-CD album is a boomy sound from the live performance at the Barbican. But that is not enough reason to skip this otherwise spectacular recording.

For more details and audio samples, click here.


Britten wrote the baritone part for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died last week. Although this isn’t the music the great German is most fondly remembered for, it seems fitting to listen to an excerpt of him singing a small section of the “Dies Irae” movement in the original recording, with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra:

John Terauds

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