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Benjamin Britten: War Requiem, Op. 66 – The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 – Spring Symphony, Op. 44
Nadezda Kniplová (soprano), Gerald English (tenor), John Cameron (baritone), Milada Subrtová (soprano), Vera Soukupová (alto), Beno Blachut (tenor), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Kühn Children's Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Karel Ancerl (conductor)
Recorded at: Dvorák Hall, Prague (January 1966, May 1958, January 1964) – 141'25
Supraphon SU 4135-2 – Booklet in English, German, French and Czech

While Karel Ancerl's recordings of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, often with high-calibre soloists, have been widely touted, these Britten performances are less known. The War Requiem and Spring Symphony are new to the catalogue and show a conductor wholly sympathetic to what was, at the time, very new music. Ancerl's uncanny ability to draw rhythmic precision from his orchestra and his unobtrusive interpretive stances make each of these performances enjoyable in their own right. Adding in the unique sonorities of the 1960s Czech Philharmonic Orchestra creates an enjoyable, alternative approach to a triptych of Britten works that have been quite fortunate in the catalogue, although usually from more homogenous Anglo-American sources.

The performance of the War Requiem, with close but colorful sound and judicially balanced soloists and chorus, is straightforward and sturdy. Ancerl's orchestra and chorus have no problems with the technical passages in the score. The aching quintuplets of the opening have great momentum and the choral singing is beautifully hushed and blended. Gerald English's "What passing bells" shows excellent flexibility and intonation and a distinctive tenor sonority not unlike Peter Pears'. Throughout the "Dies irae" sequence, consonants are venomously emphasized by both chorus and soloists, and are complemented by blazing brass and especially articulate trumpet fanfares. John Cameron sings wonderfully, but is highlighted quite a bit, the busy accompanying music of the chamber orchestra far removed and a bit muddled. Nadezda Kniplová is striking in her solos, and her tone is similar to Galina Vishnevskaya's, with wide but not unpleasant vibrato and huge sound throughout her range. Her "Rex tremendae" features a somewhat free rhythmic interpretation, with a few less-than-dotted rhythms, but is otherwise well-sung. The previously incisive trumpets warm nicely in the "Recordare" and are matched by the women of the chorus, and the men faithfully follow Britten's "heavy" marking in the ensuing "Confutatis." Ancerl is likewise superb in negotiating the tempo transition to the "Lacrimosa," where Kniplová returns with beautifully floated arcing phrases.

The remainder of the performance continues along these lines, and the highlight is a splendidly unleashed "Sanctus," despite Kniplová's voice showing a bit of fatigue. Ancerl's steady hand creates a moving final "Libera me," with the combined forces nicely balanced. There are several instances where Ancerl follows interpretive indications even more closely than the composer himself did in his celebrated Decca recording. The Dies irae's "Confutatis," marked "heavy," is less staccato than usual, making it more menacing, while the Offertorium's opening "Domine," marked "broadly," is more measured than in most performances. Likewise, dynamic indications are followed without fail, lacing the score with more swells than usual. This is a powerful performance, boasting the finest recorded sound in the collection.

The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra allows the listener to enjoy the distinctive timbres of the Czech winds and brass. The piece is played without narration, but it appears that Ancerl had not yet received the addenda that Britten made shortening the connective interludes when the spoken parts were omitted. It would have been wonderful to hear the piece narrated in Czech, and the lengthier connective passages that are used at times seem meandering. The individual variations themselves are a delight and reveal the depth of talent in the orchestra, collectively unleashed in a snappy reading of the work's fugue.

The curiosity factor of a Czech-language Spring Symphony is high. Indeed, the piece turns out sounding more like Janácek than Britten. The thicker textures of the piece suffer from the mono recording and the audience seems to be suffering from a collective January bout of bronchitis, but the performance overall is strong. Again, wind solos are enjoyable merely for the distinctive Czech timbres and the brass-heavy orchestration is often thrillingly played. Beno Blachut is the most impressive of the soloists, with Subrtová's harsh tone quickly becoming tiring to the ear. Soukupová's thick, Slavic alto is mostly attractive, but in ensemble numbers she protrudes from the texture quite a bit. There are some odd moments of balance, such as an especially prominent tuba in "The driving boy," taken at a measured tempo, while the glistening harp gestures of "Welcome Maids of Honour" are all but lost. "Sound the Flute" is also taken a bit slowly, not quite the exuberant march it should be, but the structure of the Finale is nicely managed. The opening flows gracefully, and the entry of "Sumer is Icumen In" is an appropriately hair-raising moment of controlled chaos.

None of these recordings would serve as a first choice, but they are each interesting documents in their own right and the War Requiem is an excellent addition to that work's storied discography. The booklet notes, with a brief essay documenting Ancerl's devotion to contemporary music followed by nicely detailed notes on the three works on the program, are a great bonus.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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