'War Requiem': A piece that bears repetition

As if to underscore the classic status of Britten's "War Requiem," a swarm of new and old recordings of the piece has been released this fall. Coming this week will be a new recording led by Antonio Pappano, with a glittering trio of soloists (Anna Netrebko, Ian Bostridge and Thomas Hampson) on Warner Classics. That's not close to all.

—From the Czech Radio archives comes a live 1966 performance led by Karel Ancerl two years before the Soviets marched into Prague (Supraphon). Despite the mediocre sound and some flaws (the boys' chorus comes in four bars early in the Offertorium, nearly causing a train wreck), the performance often has great prophetic urgency.

—With the Gabrieli Consort and Polish-British choral groups, Paul McCreesh leads a subdued, polished performance that doesn't cut deeply enough (Signum). Mariss Jansons' live recording from Munich has satisfying choral heft and more leisurely pacing than almost everyone, but not to the point where it drags (BR Klassik).

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—Also worth hearing is Carlo Maria Giulini in a 1969 broadcast (released in 2000) pouring his Italian soul into a work for which he had surprising affinity — with Britten alongside him leading the chamber ensemble (BBC Legends).

—If you can wait until Dec. 10, the historic world premiere performance in Coventry on May 30, 1962, with Meredith Davies leading the big orchestra and chorus and Britten the chamber group, is finally coming out for the first time (Testament). It's a scrappy, hazard-strewn affair in sometimes bootleg-quality sound, yet it conveys the high emotion of the occasion, especially Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's heart-rending performance.

—None, though, is as authoritative, nor as electrifying, nor as creative in the use of stereo and space as Britten's own 1963 recording (Decca), just re-released in a special edition that includes a fresh, spacious-sounding transfer on a Blu-ray audio disc and a rehearsal disc along with the regular CD. It set a daunting example for the recordings that came afterward, particularly for sopranos who try to channel Galina Vishnevskaya's shrill fervor, or tenors who emulate Peter Pears' diction. The rehearsal disc is invaluable not only for its insights straight from the composer's mouth, but also for proof that Britten knew how to rehearse.


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