Death became him

Classical byDermot Clinch

What do you get when you shove a War Requiem through a dCS analogue-digital converter running at a sampling frequency of 96kHz and a word length of 24 bits and then subject the finished product to a CEDAR (DH2) dehisser and store it on GENEX magneto-optical discs in the Decca tape library?

Answer: what Peter Shaffer, looking for the big phrase to describe the first performance of the work in the new Coventry cathedral in May 1962, described as "the most impressive and moving piece of sacred music ever to be composed in this country", only less hissy. Shaffer had forgotten Handel's Messiah, Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary, Elgar's Gerontius. And did Britten's War Requiem really "make criticism impertinent"? Stravinsky later suggested that to criticise the War Requiem in England would be like failing to stand for "God Save the Queen".

Britten's own recording of the Requiem sold 200,000 copies within five months. It is this recording that Decca has now digitised, sanitised, CEDAR-ed and re-released. The minimal black cover with white lettering remains, but there is the welcome addition of 50 minutes of bootlegged rehearsal material made, entirely without the composer's knowledge, during the recording sessions in the Kingsway Hall in London. The producer thought that Britten might like a pressing of the rehearsal tape as a 50th birthday present in the shape of a one-off LP with its own label and the catalogue number BB50. Britten said he was appalled by the deception and stuffed it in a cupboard without listening to it.

The final recording is one of the classics of the catalogue, which we take for granted. The rehearsal shows the practical, managerial work behind a great performance. Britten's manner with the Highgate School Choir is prep-school: "Don't make it sound nice. It's horrid. It's modern music." With the chorus, Britten the conductor is pragmatic: "No, no, dear hearts, when it's pianissimo it's not slower . . . " With the first violins, master of the ingratiating lean and confidential whisper: "Just a little too vibrato on the crotchets, violins?" Decca has furnished a portrait of an artistic man with a crystal accent who is also completely in charge. The control-room sycophancy is very fine indeed. "Of course, Peter [Pears] . . . marvellous singing, absolutely marvellous . . . two smashing takes . . . "

The stresses of Britten's voice on the rehearsal tape - the emphases, the wheedling, cajoling and joking - make one think of the composer's greatest talent of all. Could Britten have been the great word-setter he was, one wonders, if he wasn't also a master of his own tone of voice? The high bassoon, sweetly colouring Galina Vishnevskaya's sobbing "Lachrymosa"; the milky, Schubertian doubling of the melody as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings, "Voices of boys were by the riverside, sleep mothered them", have one obvious net effect: maximum emphasis.

Britten's trio of Russian, German and British soloists came together to argue musically for peace in our time, and their musical interactions are handled with enormous subtlety. But the overall effect of the War Requiem is more unsettling, more subversive than even the composer intended. Owen's poems are not simply "tropes to the liturgical movements", mere interpolations, as has been suggested. After 40 years, the juxtaposition of the words of the Mass imploring everlasting peace with Owen's lines asking, "What passing bells for those who die as cattle?" and answering "Only the monstrous anger of the guns" seems subordinate to a mutinous degree. Britten was being impertinent in criticising the liturgy. But criticise it he did.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote