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Benjamin Britten: War Requiem [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Nelsons] Blu-ray Review

  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
  • Resolution: 1080i/60
  • Audio Codec: PCM 2.0 Stereo; DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
  • Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish
  • Region: ABC (Region-Free)
  • Rating: Not Rated
  • Discs: 1 (1 x Blu-ray)
  • Studio: Arthaus Musik
  • Blu-ray Release Date: October 30, 2012
  • List Price: $39.99

Overall
[Rating:4.5/5]
The Performance
[Rating:4.5/5]
Video Quality
[Rating:4.5/5]
Audio Quality
[Rating:4/5]
Supplemental Materials
[Rating:0/5]

Click thumbnails for high-resolution 1920X1080p screen captures

(All TheaterByte screen captures are lightly compressed with lossy JPEG at 100% quality setting and are meant as a general representation of the content. They do not fully reveal the capabilities of the Blu-ray format)

The Performance

[Rating:4.5/5]

The greatest English composer of the post-WW II era, Benjamin Britten felt compelled to memorialize the tragedies of war with this War Requiem that debuted fifty years ago in Coventry Cathedral, a church destroyed during the war and rebuilt by 1962.  A requiem in name, this large work mixes the Latin liturgical text with poems by Wilfred Owen, an Englishman killed during the First World War. There are three musical groups, the main orchestra with soprano and choir, baritone and tenor soloists with a chamber orchestra, and a girls’ choir with small positive organ. Composer Britten, a well-known pacifist, originally intended a cast including a Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, an English tenor, Peter Pears, and a German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Due to visa complications, Mme Vishnevskaya was unable to leave the USSR and was replaced on short notice by English soprano Heather Harper. In this 2012 commemorative performance, in the very same church as its premiere, the soloists are American soprano Erin Wall, English tenor Mark Padmore, and German baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann (a Fischer-Dieskau student). The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are led by its music director, Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons.

Video Quality

[Rating:4.5/5]

The rebuilt cathedral is a beautiful yet rather modern-appearing venue and the cameras give us one gorgeous shot after another. Details are well managed and sharp with a good color palette despite the monochromatic garb of the soloists, orchestra and adult chorus.  Close ups of maestro Nelsons reveal an almost beatific countenance as if in awe of what he and his forces were accomplishing.

Audio Quality

[Rating:4/5]

Britten commented on the difficult acoustics of this rebuilt church and the original live broadcast engineers apparently had a devil of a time getting proper balances. The music itself is an unusual combination of ethereal and martial styles with plenty of percussion, brass and deftly placed chimes.  There is plenty of hall echo but the sound recordists at work here get most of the score quite right. Soloists are clear although due to the reverberation of massed voices, the chorus sounds less well defined. The surround DTS-HD Master Audio version gives listeners the better hall experience than the stereo counterpart. This is particularly important for hearing the children’s choir that is located behind the audience.

Supplemental Materials

[Rating:0/5]

Considering the significance of this performance, I was quite surprised that Arthaus Musik stiffed us on extras, rendering only trailers for some other classical BDs.

The Definitive Word

Overall:

[Rating:4.5/5]

Britten’s War Requiem is less about war than it is about war’s ultimate toll. There are moments of quiet and moving spirituality like the final “Let us sleep” tenor-baritone duet that find their way among the more declamatory sections of this 90 minute work. Britten does not quite let listeners forget the clangor of war in his orchestration and percussion while Owens’ poetry bears testimony to the horror and sorrow inherent in armed conflict.  I first heard this work shortly after its premiere recording conducted by the composer and released in 1963. These records (I still have them) left an indelible impression that time has only served to enhance.  This new BD premiere offers a significantly different approach since maestro Nelsons restrains his forces in many of the sections, thus allowing their inner voices to be better appreciated.  The soloists, perhaps not as well known as some of their predecessors, more than hold their own against the competition. If I have one quibble, I would have preferred a boys’ choir rather its all-girl replacement. There is just something otherworldly in the boys’ voices that Britten really understood and frequently used in his other vocal works. In the end, a masterpiece can receive varied treatments and still emerge a masterpiece. That is what we get in this beautifully realized Arthaus Musik release that will go on my short list for the year!

Additional Screen Captures

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Overall
[Rating:4.5/5]
The Performance
[Rating:4.5/5]
Video Quality
[Rating:4.5/5]
Audio Quality
[Rating:4/5]
Supplemental Materials
[Rating:0/5]



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