Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra,
Netherlands Radio Choir & Netherlands Children’s Choir
Jaap van Zweden
Reinbert de Leeuw
Conductor Netherlands Radio Choir: Celso Antunes
Conductor Netherlands Children’s Choir: Wilma ten Wolde
Evelina Dobracheva soprano
Anthony Dean Griffey tenor
Mark Stone baritone
Britten - War Requiem
During the late 14th and early 15th centuries, a church dedicated to the Archangel Michael was erected in Coventry. In 1918, it was designated a cathedral. The
cathedral was almost entirely destroyed during a German air raid in 1940, with only the outer walls, bell tower and tomb of the first bishop remaining intact. These were
preserved as a memorial. In the 1950s, the decision was made to incorporate the ruins in a new building. The first stone was laid by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 and the new cathedral opened on May 25, 1962. Five days later, it was musically inaugurated with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, in a performance broadcast live by the BBC.
At the time, Britten was probably the only British composer able to strike a collective chord with his countrymen – even though in his operas, he always sided with eccentrics and outcasts. As a pacifist and homosexual, he had been personally familiar with the conflict between the individual and establishment since the 1930s. Yet Britten was not a political activist, for he was decidedly a member of a generation that held its peace when confronted with the dark aspects of community, family or the military. Artistically, however, Britten was an activist, as witness his antithetical heroes: Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Billy Budd and Owen Wingrave. At times, his political message was so encoded that it seemed like a message in a bottle for a better future.
Britten’s political consciousness embedded a number of these hidden messages in the War Requiem in a way that only like minds would recognize themselves as
being addressed. Take for instance the soloists he had in mind for the premiere of the War Requiem. To the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, he confided that he
wanted to bring together three soloists here as representatives of the countries that had suffered most in the war. Britten was thinking of an Englishman (the tenor
Peter Pears), a German (the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and a Russian (Vishnevskaya). The soloist group in no way reflected the Allied forces. On the contrary,
they were former enemies that came to stand before an imaginary reconciliation committee. Take for instance the last movement, Libera me, in which a fallen
British soldier talks with a German soldier he has killed. Such understanding between enemies was bound to lead to problems. The Soviet authorities thought it was
inappropriate for Vishnevskaya to perform under such circumstances with a German and an Englishman. The combination of “‘Cathedral’ & Reconciliation with W. Germany” (as Britten called it) went too far. A replacement had to be found, and Heather Harper had but 10 days to learn the part.