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Daily album review 43: Paul McCreesh's arresting Britten War Requiem

By John Terauds on December 17, 2013

Paul McCreesh (Benjamin Ealovega photo).
Paul McCreesh (Benjamin Ealovega photo).

In the season where Christians celebrate the birth of a Prince of Peace it often becomes painfully apparent that peace is often pretty far down the agenda — be it on the international stage, or in the parking lot at Yorkdale Mall.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

For many music lovers, few works better capture the tragic contradictions inherent in our stated desire for peace versus a propensity to kill each other than Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, commissioned to dedicate a new cathedral in Coventry in 1962 — an English industrial city whose factories, homes and Gothic cathedral had been levelled in the early years of World War II.

The War Requiem alternates the text of the traditional Latin funeral Mass with poignant poetry of Wilfrid Owen, a British solider killed in combat one week before the end of World War I.

“My subject is War, and the pity of War. Poetry is in the pity… All a poet can do today is warn,” is the quotation by Owen printed in the opening pages of the deluxe 2-CD+book package issued this fall by Signum Records.

It is impossible for anyone with warm blood not to be deeply moved by this masterwork of Britten’s — especially when performed as well as on this new recording led by British conductor Paul McCreesh. The large forces captured in January at Birmingham Town Hall include English as well as Polish choristers. The soloists are excellent: soprano Susan Gritton, tenor John Mark Ainsley and baritone Christopher Maltman.

The audio engineers have done an incredible job of getting clear, balanced audio from a challenging space. The text — on which the success of this remarkable work hinges — is crystal clear.

This recording is one of the great keepsakes of this Britten centennial year.

You can find the details, including access to the booklet text, here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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