A generation has passed -- 22 years -- since Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" was revealed to the world, first at the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral and later in a recording, conducted by the composer.
The "War Requiem" was instantly recognized as a classic -- the 20th century's answer to Bach's Mass in B Minor, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and the great requiems of Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. It is a work that fully deserves mention in the same breath with these others, a view of war and its folly at once intensely personal and universal, anguished and serene, timeless and rooted in a specific event. It was a fitting musical observance of a deeply symbolic occasion: the rebuilding of a great monument of the human spirit that had been shattered in the most destructive war ever seen on this planet.
Perspective is probably the most notable structural characteristic of the "War Requiem": the way it is able to shift from universal statements (using the ancient Latin text of the requiem mass) to personal reflections embodied in the poems of Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I. A similar variety of viewpoints is embodied in the music, which uses many textures for its various segments: large orchestra and chorus, boys' choir, chamber ensemble and three soloists. The symbolism of the work extended to the choice of soloists for whom the music was written, representing the three ways of life that struggled for supremacy in World War II: a Russian soprano, an English tenor and a German baritone, all close friends of the composer.
It was felt at the time -- and it is still true -- that no other performers could ever sound quite like the three soloists who sang in the premiere recording with Britten conducting. Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau all had distinctive voices, immediately recognizable in their tone and style. Each was the supreme interpreter of a specialized kind of music. And the characteristics of each voice seemed to be enshrined in Britten's music -- a tribute to friendship adding a subtle nuance to the work's violent condemnation of violence. If ever a piece of music was brought into the world with a definitive performance, it seemed to be the first recording of Britten's "War Requiem."
But a musical classic is, by definition, a work that can go on living and growing after it leaves the composer's hand, a work in which continuity of impact can be balanced with change of style and emphasis. This dimension of the "War Requiem's" classic status was demonstrated in Washington several years ago when Mstislav Rostropovich conducted a magnificent performance. Now it has been enshrined on records in a recording conducted by Simon Rattle with Elisabeth So derstro m, Robert Tear and Thomas Allen as soloists. Appropriately for a second-generation interpretation of a classic, it is available in the newest recording medium: compact disc (EMI CDCB 47033, two discs). It does not supplant Britten's own recording; nothing ever will. But it is significantly different, it is excellent in all respects, and it demonstrates convincingly the protean quality of a true classic.
Rattle faces a challenge that has become significant for conductors of recorded music only in the last generation: direct competition with a recording by the composer himself. He rises superbly to the challenge. Obviously, he has studied Britten's interpretation intensively, and he accords it the respect due to the work of a creative genius who was also an expert conductor. But he does not feel constrained to slavish imitation. We have long been aware that notes on paper often leave room for more than one interpretation. Rattle is equally aware that sound registered on tape, at least in music of this complexity, involves decisions that could have been, and sometimes should be, made differently. The same is true of his soloists, who stand up well to direct comparison with three of the greatest voices of our time. The Chorus and Orchestra of Birmingham, England, and the boys' choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, also perform splendidly.
The 21-year-old recorded sound of Britten's performance is still impressive, but it cannot match the clarity, dynamic range and total freedom from background noise in EMI's superb digital recording. These qualities are specially valuable in music that ranges so extraordinarily from cosmic proclamations to the most intimate utterances, music of such enormously varied textures and perspectives.
Eventually, we may expect a digital remastering of Britten's original recording, and that should bring a new subtlety and clarity to the sound that has been familiar for more than 20 years. The work of reprocessing old analog recordings in digital form is still barely started, but a few promising samples have begun to appear, notably from Japan, where classical arts (even those of the West) enjoy a reverence unmatched in our society. In Tokyo, CBS/Sony has begun a massive program of reissuing Bruno Walter's old recordings on compact discs.
A few samples have reached the United States, and they have a sonic glory unimaginable from the commercial releases of a quarter-century ago. The performances sound not just as fresh as when they were new, but rather fresher. Lovers of historic recordings can anticipate great days ahead, when compact disc production capacity becomes large enough for marginal attention to such treasures.
Meanwhile, in another digital recording (EMI CDC 7 47062 2), Simon Rattle shows the same independent spirit and perceptive musicianship revealed in his "War Requiem." It is Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, in an interpretation whose aristocratic poise and restraint are matched by an unusual clarity in the perception and exposition of formal structures. It has become instantly my favorite recording of this work -- a recommendation that hard-core Rachmaninoff fans should approach with caution, since I don't usually like the symphony at all. The orchestra is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has made Rattle a principal guest conductor, and the performance nearly (not quite) justifies that orchestra's management in its contention that the standard "Big Five" list of American orchestras should be expanded to a "Big Six."
The new music director in Los Angeles (and former tenant in Pittsburgh), Andre Previn, has returned to a former love in a new recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. The music is Debussy's "La Mer" and Three Nocturnes (EMI CDC 7 04728 2). The performance is as subtle, powerful and finely detailed as any on records (no small claim), with digital sound to match.