Britten War Requiem 1962


Paul McCreesh, Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Consort & Players

Susan Gritton, John Mark Ainsley, Christopher Maltman

Gabrieli Young Singers’ Scheme:
Chetham’s School of Music Chamber Choir, directors Martin Bussey and Stephen Threlfall
North East Youth Chorale, director John Forsyth
Taplow Youth Choir, director Gillian Dibden
Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, director Greg Beardsell

Trebles of the Choir of New College Oxford


MP3 Album also available on iTunes.

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Requiem Aeternam
Requiem Aeternam (Chorus)
Te Decet Hymnus (Boys)
Requiem Aeternam (Chorus)
What Passing-Bells (Tenor)
Kyrie Eleison (Chorus)

Dies Irae
Dies Irae (Chorus)
Bugles Sang (Baritone)
Liber Scriptus (Soprano & Chorus)
Out There, We've Walked (Tenor & Baritone)
Recordare (Chorus)
Confutatis (Chorus)
Be Slowly Lifted Up (Baritone)
Dies Irae (Chorus)
Lacrimosa (Soprano & Chorus) | Move Him Into The Sun (Tenor)
Pie Jesu (Chorus)

Domine Jesu Christe (Boys)
Sed Signifier Sanctus Michael (Chorus)
So Abram Rose (Tenor & Baritone) | Hostias e Preces (Boys)
Quam Olim Abrahae (Chorus)

Sanctus (Soprano & Chorus)
After The Blast (Baritone)

Agnus Dei
One Ever Hangs (Tenor) | Agnus Dei (Chorus)

Libera Me
Libera Me Soprano & (Chorus)
It Seemed That Out Of Battle I Escaped (Tenor & Baritone)
Let Us Sleep Now… (Tenor & Baritone) | In Paradisum (Boys, Soprano & Chorus)
Requiescant In Pace (Chorus)

In 1958, Britten was invited to compose a large-scale work to celebrate the consecration of a new Cathedral to be built by Basil Spence at Coventry. Spence's striking edifice was to be erected directly alongside the iconic ruins of the original cathedral, almost completely destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, as if a phoenix rising from the ashes of wartime destruction. The Coventry commission resulted in the War Requiem, first performed in the new cathedral on 30 May 1962. The work was important not only as a major stylistic watershed in Britten's compositional development but also as a profound artistic declaration – at once deeply personal and outspokenly public – of the composer's long-held and committed pacifism, which had years before inspired his orchestral work Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), written at the height of the Second World War in memory of his parents. At the time of the War Requiem's extraordinary and emotionally charged premiere (which reduced one of the participating soloists to tears) it seemed that the work was the ultimate statement of Britten's views on the subject, but in 1970 he was to return to the theme in the television opera Owen Wingrave.

In the 1950s Britten became strongly attracted to the anti-war poetry of the outstanding First World War poet Wilfred Owen (1893‒1918), including one of his poems in his Nocturne (1958) and selecting some of the finest for incorporation in his own highly original textual scheme for War Requiem. The Latin text of the Missa pro Defunctis is interspersed with nine Owen poems which provide a (frequently uncomfortable) commentary on the liturgical text. Britten sketched out the work's textual plan in one of his old school exercise books (ironically, it was the book in which he had done his grammatical exercises in the German language) and evolved a dramatic structure that could be treated almost as if it were an operatic libretto. The underlying operatic conception is one of the many possible parallels between the work and Verdi's Requiem, which was a significant influence on Britten's score. Britten's Verdi-tinged settings of the familiar Latin texts seem to form a quasi-traditional backdrop against which the vivid brilliance of the Owen settings stands out with enhanced clarity and forcefulness.

Britten's personal attitude towards Christianity is a complex subject, since he explicitly stated during the Second World War that he did not believe in the Divinity of Christ ("but I think his teaching is sound and his example should be followed", he told the tribunal deciding his case as a conscientious objector). Like Owen, who in both his correspondence and poetry sometimes roundly condemned what he saw as the sterility of traditional worship, Britten was somewhat distrustful of organised religion, while at the same time retaining an enormous confidence in humanity's own capacity for compassion and reconciliation. The tension between the apparent impassiveness and impersonality of the Christian liturgy, and the deeply personal experiences of real people caught up in the tragedy of war, lies at the heart of the War Requiem and creates many telling juxtapositions of Owen's poetry and the age-old Latin texts. The tolling bells of the Requiem aeternam and its ritualized promise of eternal rest are abruptly dismissed with Owen's "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" The brilliant trumpets of the Dies irae are quickly silenced in favour of Owen's sad and sorrowful battlefield fanfares in "Bugles sang". The imposing image of the "Rex tremendae majestatis" presiding over the Day of Judgement is pointedly ignored in Owen's soldiers' jaunty account of how they "walked quite friendly up to Death... We laughed at him". And, in certain portions of the work discussed below, Britten explores even richer ironies that involve a distortion of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac and the paradox of an ultimate reconciliation that takes place, not in heaven, but in the hell that is the direct aftermath of death in battle.

The Latin words are sung by a solo soprano and chorus (with large orchestra), while the Owen poems are assigned to tenor and baritone soloists (who directly represent soldiers) and a virtuosic chamber orchestra equivalent to that used in Britten's earlier chamber operas. Britten had intended the three soloists to represent three different countries that had played major roles in the Second World War, his definitive choice – as preserved on his celebrated Decca recording of the work made in 1963 – being Galina Vishnevskaya (USSR), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Germany) and Peter Pears (UK). The two principal performing groups are sometimes joined by a third, comprising distant boys' voices and organ; the boys in places sing archaic-sounding melodic lines, often based on plainchant, which provide an ethereal and sometimes remote contrast to the grim imagery of the Owen settings and the sombre splendour of the choral-orchestral Latin passages.

Characteristically, Britten's musical structure is as economical as it is sophisticated, and in this work (in contrast to the complex thematic interrelationships in certain of his operas) he seems to have intended to make his public pacifist statement in a directly communicative idiom based on readily identifiable motifs and instrumental gestures. Thrilling polytonal brass fanfares and dramatic drum and percussion writing, alongside (much distorted) march rhythms, all vividly characterise the battlefields, whilst bells, a cappella writing and plainchant motifs all reflect the traditions of Requiem music. Britten makes great use of asymmetric metres of fives and sevens, most noticeably in the famous seven beat parody-march of the Dies irae and the lilting five-beat Agnus Dei.

Most pervasive of all is the use of the interval of a tritone, especially that between C natural and F sharp, which is announced in various guises in the opening section of the first movement (Requiem aeternam) and often associated with the distant tolling of bells. Since the middle ages, this interval has been regarded as the "diabolus in musica" and, in choosing it as his principal unifying element, Britten was tapping both its extra-musical associations and uniquely disquieting tonal ambiguity. Its outline shape is encountered almost everywhere, since it can condition both the vertical structure of chords (particularly diminished and dominant sevenths, the former consistently associated with warfare in several Britten works) as well as the note-patterns in horizontal scales. A good example of Britten's deft transformation of this basic idea occurs as the opening section of the Requiem aeternam merges into the first Owen setting ("What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?") and the tolling bells yield to the same interval nervously announced by the harp, the disquieting effect quite out of proportion to the simplicity of the means employed.

The work's Verdian allusions – part of a complex web of historical resonances which also embraces Requiems by Berlioz, Fauré and others – are most obvious in the Dies irae, and they include Britten's choice of principal keys (a G minor tonic with a later shift to the remote key of B flat minor for the soprano solo's Lacrimosa) and certain textural correspondences (for example, off-beat thumping rhythms with prominent bass drum). When Britten was confronted about these allusions in 1969 he commented, perhaps rather disingenuously:

"I think that I would be a fool if I didn't take notice of how Mozart, Verdi, Dvořák – whoever you like to name – had written their Masses. I mean, many people have pointed out the similarities between the Verdi Requiem, and they may be there. If I have not absorbed that, that's too bad. But that's because I'm not a good enough composer, it's not because I'm wrong."

Britten certainly revels in traditional brass-dominated orchestral imagery associated with the Day of Judgement, which in this context also resonates with the sounds of real battlefields in Flanders. Such identification is made explicit by the chamber orchestra when accompanying the first two Owen poems in this movement: the melancholic "Bugles sang" (baritone) and the bitterly exuberant dance of death, "Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death" (tenor and baritone). A pulsating motif later announced by tenors and basses at the words Confutatis maledictis is transformed into a powerful timpani gesture in the subsequent Owen setting ("Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm"), where it represents the terrifying potency of a piece of artillery "towering toward Heaven, about to curse". For the first time, the orchestral trumpets here invade the music for chamber orchestra and initiate a recapitulation of the opening choral rhetoric. The lyrical Lacrimosa that follows is hauntingly interspersed with a setting of Owen's poem Futility ("Move him into the sun") before the movement concludes with a return to the dispassionate bells heard at the work's opening.

The Offertorium is especially rich with irony, arising from its juxtaposition of the Latin text Quam olim Abrahae promisisti, et semini eius with Owen's poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young ("So Abram rose"). Here, Britten makes telling self-quotation from his earlier chamber-vocal work Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac (1952), a setting of a medieval text based on the same biblical story. In Canticle II, Britten follows the biblical narrative as an angel saves the sacrificial child; in War Requiem Abraham slays his son Isaac "and half the seed of Europe, one by one". In the choral and orchestral music on either side of the Owen setting, Britten pays a nod to traditional Mass and Requiem settings by writing fugally; the fugue is buoyant on its first appearance, but when the counterpoint is reworked after Abraham's chilling sacrifice, it is in inverted form and nervously hushed throughout. The boys' choir and chamber organ plays a vital role in this movement, not only in their evocative chanting at the opening but also in their eerie "marchlike" intonation of Hostias e preces as the Owen setting breaks down and the fugue quietly resumes.

The glittering tuned percussion writing at the start of the Sanctus was directly inspired by Britten's 1956 visit to Indonesia, where he encountered the Balinese gamelan that was to exert a profound influence on such major scores as the ballet The Prince and the Pagodas (1957) and his final opera Death in Venice (1973). Eight-part unsynchronized choral chanting encompassing all twelve chromatic pitches (representing the totality of Pleni sunt coeli) precedes the thrilling Hosanna. Here, vibrant brass fanfares pay homage to the traditional baroque key of celebration (D major) and seemingly echo the Sanctus of Bach's B minor Mass. After the soprano soloist's more delicate Benedictus and a concise restatement of the Hosanna, a setting of Owen's poem The End ("After the blast of lightning from the East") moves from a rich harmonic language to a dissipated texture that fizzles out in near-atonality. This disturbing poem offers a bleak vision of Life's inability to "Fill the void veins ... again with youth" as the Earth declares her "titanic tears, the sea" will never be dried: at this point in the work, the promise of both resurrection and consolation seem hopelessly remote.

As a result, the haunting simplicity of the ensuing Agnus Dei – the only movement in the War Requiem in which the Owen and Latin components seem to share both emotional and musical common ground throughout – is thrown into sharp relief. The tenor soloist's poignant Dona nobis pacem at the conclusion is a significant departure from the definitive text of the Requiem, and was suggested to Britten by Pears, in whose handwriting the phrase appears on the composer's draft libretto.

The Libera Me opens with a sombre and slow reworking of a theme first heard in agitated form in the setting of "What passing-bells", now reduced at first to skeletal percussion rhythms suggestive of a funeral march, but soon growing more recognizable and intense, incorporating recapitulations of material from the Dies irae and climaxing in an apocalyptic and shattering return to that movement's G minor tonic, the massive orchestral chord stiffened by the unexpected entry of full organ. The music subsides into an eerily intense setting of Owen's poem Strange Meeting ("It seemed that out of battle I escaped"), in which a soldier is reunited in death with an enemy soldier he has previously killed. Here Britten's extraordinary compositional economy allows him to transcend the ostensible surrealism of the situation to create the simple statement of reconciliation to which every musical event up to this point has tended. The ultimate irony here lies in the fact that Owen sets this reconciliation in hell, and this is the point in the Requiem in which they should be "in paradisum". (Britten carefully excised the explicit reference to hell from Owen's text, perhaps aware that it might be too provocative and cause offence to a Christian audience.) The three spatially separated performing groups only come together when the final Owen line "Let us sleep now..." is combined with the comforting words of the In Paradisum, first intoned by distant boys' voices. Yet Britten refuses to allow the listener to be lulled into a false sense of security by concluding the work with a vision of unambiguous peace. The final ensemble is abruptly cut off by a chilling return of the tolling bells that have dominated the work as a whole. In spite of several abortive attempts to restart the In Paradisum, the work ends in an unsettling gesture of understatement that can only leave the audience painfully aware of the paradoxes and contradictions that this extraordinary work addresses but ultimately – as it must – leaves unresolved.

© Mervyn Cooke

Mervyn Cooke is Professor of Music at the University of Nottingham and has published widely on Britten's life and music. His books on the composer include Britten and the Far East, The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, and monographs on the War Requiem and Billy Budd. He is also co-editor of the multi-volume edition of Britten's selected correspondence, of which the final volume was published in 2013 to mark the composer's centenary. In addition to his work on Britten, he has published several books devoted to the subjects of film music and jazz.


A vast project such as this is only possible with the help, support and collaboration of a great number of people and organisations, to whom I remain enormously grateful. Amongst the many people I should acknowledge, I would particularly like to thank Nicholas Daniel and Jacqueline Shave, for their help with assembling the orchestras; Adrian Bending, for his assistance with percussion; David Clegg, for amassing yet another Gabrieli super-choir; the directors of the youth choirs that comprise the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme, particularly Greg Beardsell; Mike Abrahams, for the care and artistry that he invests in the design concept for these recordings; and Susie York Skinner and Katherine Hill from Gabrieli. I am also hugely grateful to the Gabrieli supporters and Trusts and Foundations listed elsewhere in this booklet for their help financing the project.

As always, it has been a great joy to work with Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny, Jacek Rzempoluch, Izabela Piekielnik, Przemyslaw Loho and all our colleagues in Wrocław. We are grateful to the Polish Cultural Institute in London for supporting the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir's involvement in the recording. It is a pleasure to acknowledge here the great support of Wrocław's mayor, Rafał Dutkiewicz, who has enabled us to develop such a creative partnership with the city over many years. Finally, my warmest thanks must go to Andrzej Kosendiak, General Director of Wratislavia Cantans and Wrocław Philharmonic, for his vision in creating the Wratislavia Cantans Oratorio Series. His support, friendship and great love of music are a constant source of inspiration.

Paul McCreesh


"...the McCreesh War Requiem, taped in the studio by combined British and Polish forces, has the presence and intensity of a live Cathedral performance: it sets new standards for this strangely moving choral work. The Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir projects the Latin liturgical texts with radiant luminosity, matched by the trebles of the Choir of New College Oxford, while the three soloists – Susan Gritton, John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman – combine poise and conviction. McCreesh brings astonishing clarity to the work’s musical syntax … Here is a recording worthy of the Britten centenary." The Financial Times, 31 August 2013

"The latest in Paul McCreesh's presentations of large-scale oratorios again uses the massed forces of the Gabrieli Consort & Players with the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir – more than 300 performers in all. The result is another triumphant realisation of a complex, multi-layered work." The Independent, 30 August 2013

"...tenor John Mark Ainsley – who really hits the spot for me … the depth, detail and fidelity of McCreesh’s new [recording] is at another level. In the Requiem Aeternam, McCreesh makes the bells more telling than Britten's recording and it’s just so beautiful, the sound has so much space and clarity … It’s a very well-paced performance, and Susan Gritton, John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman are excellent soloists, totally engaged with Britten's combination of the Latin Mass for the Dead and Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. It’s an outstanding recording for the Winged Lion Label from Signum Classics." CD Review, BBC Radio Three, 24 August 2013

"Using more than 300 performers, headed by Paul McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort and Players, this combined Anglo-Polish performance of Britten's pacifist choral masterpiece, celebrating the composer's centenary, is thrilling in many places...some sensationally good instrumental playing..." Richard Morrison, The Times, 7 September 2013

"...This fiftieth anniversary recording comes pretty well at the top of the modern list [of recordings]..." MusicWeb International, October 2013

"...Britten’s extraordinary pacifist statement is powerful in the hands of Paul McCreesh and his British-Polish mix of musicians...This is a poised, visceral, brilliantly hued and highly charged performance that deserves to become a benchmark recording." Charlotte Gardner, Sinfini Music, 26 September 2013

"...McCreesh clearly feels this work intimately...If the conducting is a revelation, the soloists are outstanding..." Auditorium, September 2013

"...Splendid choral singing has been a notable feature of McCreesh's Berlioz and Mendelssohn recordings and it's just as evident here...The instrumental playing is superb...Paul McCreesh yet again shows himself to have full command of very large forces. He clearly has the measure of the work..." John Quinn, Music Web International, 19 September 2013

"...Paul McCreesh...seldom misses an opportunity to bring out a rarely appreciated detail, perhaps motivated in part by working here with an excellent hand-picked ensemble...His approach is matched by an unfailingly clear recording..." Carl Rosman, International Record Review, October 2013

"...This new recording is a considerable achievement for all those involved. Paul McCreesh manages these large forces brilliantly to bring us a terrific performance...this new release, with excellent sound and first rate presentation, ranks as one of the finest of modern performances.", 12 October 2013

"...The seven choirs have been forged into a high-class, responsive whole and McCreesh leads them in a natural performance - speeds are never rushed or flagging, and the music breathes...John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman are able to sing with conversational intimacy, while letting through plenty of instrumental detail...Ainsley is almost unbearably tender in 'Move him into the sun'..." Richard Fairman, The Gramophone, October 2013

1962 / 2013

"I can remember it so vividly. It's as if I have bottled it. The Cathedral itself, which was so new, so iconic. That astonishing interior which has a strangely different feel when completely full and with an orchestra. The sight of Britten − hero then, hero still, and the awareness of his absolute focus and absolute inner stillness in the midst of it all. It was life-changing − the whole experience was life-changing, and I mean that literally. But it is not the choir I remember, or even the soloists − though it's impossible to forget the voice of Fischer-Dieskau. No, it was the drums. I have been haunted by the drum beats and rolls, the sense of impending doom they conveyed − the way they made your heart leap with acute awareness and with fear. And then the extraordinary silence at the end − the absolute stillness of the audience, and a silence like the silent rolling in of some great soundless sea. I have never heard a silence like it again. It was a silence that was part of the whole Requiem − it was as though Britten had written that silence into the score." Susan Hill Author

"In May 1962 I was 15 years old, and an organ pupil of John Cooper, whose boys' choir from Holy Trinity Leamington was in on the act. John was playing the organ, and I turned his pages. What do I remember? The extraordinary space that is the choir of Coventry Cathedral, and the extraordinary din of the Libera me, and the sight of all those racks of organ pipes. Also Heather Harper singing the Sanctus from the pulpit, as magisterial as Vishnevskaya, without the high-octane temperament." Edward Higginbottom Director, Choir of New College Oxford

"The timpanist, five percussionists and a large brass section were called for a sectional rehearsal in the cathedral in advance of the big day. It was spring and the weather was unsettled with fitful, scudding dark clouds interspersed with shafts of sunlight. All the brass players were needed first, so when we returned from our cups of tea we stood outside with our backs to the strange, livid daylight and looked down the body of the cathedral towards the altar through the massive, engraved glass window. Even after all these years, hairs stand on my arms at the memory of seeing the gleam of brass instruments in shafts of light, with Britten perched on a tall percussion stool taking the rehearsal, and the ethereal sound of those unique, cascading fanfares. After being rooted silently to the spot, we somehow managed to present our security passes to the doorman and walk slowly down the nave towards that powerful new sound. I was intrigued to know what such a huge musical enterprise looked like on paper, so I sneaked up to the front during a break to peer at the massive full score written on oversized manuscript paper. This was opened out and secured onto a large sheet of hardboard firmly fixed to the sturdy music stand on the conductor's rostrum. I was duly awestruck and, together with all my colleagues, realised that we were in the uniquely privileged position of taking part in a very special first performance. During rehearsals everyone got used to seeing the composer flitting in and out between the musicians, tweaking mistakes in the complex parts or slightly adjusting dynamics. There was a wonderful feeling of being involved in something exceptional. Britten was indeed a master of his craft. For instance, the string bowings at the end of the piece are visually riveting, emphasised by a relentless snare drum beating the same rhythm. His percussion writing is thrilling indeed, creating tingles down the spine for all of us. "No applause after the performance by request of the composer" was printed in the programmes at the end of the work. The thought-provoking words and music spoke volumes, and any applause would have been a superfluous travesty. Everyone present that evening remembers the deafening silence as the final notes died away. No one moved, and many were in shock. Tears were shed that evening, as the solemn row of bishops slowly processed away from the stunned assembly." Maggie Cotton former CBSO percussionist

"Benjamin Britten and his music played a very central part in my musical upbringing. I attended his old preparatory school, Old Buckenham Hall, and he visited often during my years there; I also remember seeing him and Pears in their sports car, a racing green Bentley, during family holidays in Aldeburgh. I had much-loved LPs of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and his Spring Symphony (the latter not much played now – oddly, I think). My memories of the premiere tend to be more visual than aural. I remember driving up from London on a grey Friday afternoon with my sister. I know I was very moved by the music and Wilfred Owen's poetry but what primarily comes to mind is seeing the new Basil Spence cathedral and the great Sutherland tapestry hanging over the altar." Bob Boas Gabrieli supporter

"I was near to finishing my second year reading history at Oxford, when I booked tickets for the premiere of the War Requiem and the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven No 7 two evenings later. For someone brought up in Warwick, Coventry was an important centre for culture in the 1950s and 60s. I was naturally interested to see the new cathedral and I guess that Spence, Sutherland and Piper were almost as interesting to me as Britten. It was only in subsequent years that one learnt about the problems that arose in the weeks before the premiere. I am sure I realized at the time that I was attending an important event, but the acoustics were playing tricks too. In 1963 I went to Milan to teach English and I heard the War Requiem at La Scala with the London Symphony Orchestra and David Willcocks and Elizabeth Harwood, Peter Pears and Donald Bell as soloists. I got to hear Vishnevskaya two months later when the Bolshoi Opera did a season there." Richard Phillips festival director

"I remember primarily the stunned silence at the end... the effect of the music was so overwhelming that we were, in every sense, silenced. It was clear that neither the main conductor, Meredith Davies, nor Britten himself were quite sure what to do, given the stunned hush, and eventually just shuffled off, as we did many minutes later, not wanting to speak to anyone. Britten told me years later that the silence had convinced him that the performance had been a disaster (as indeed all the rehearsals had been chaotic). Oddly enough, even from the audience's point of view, the evening had begun badly. The weather was chilly, and we had all been made to stand in a long queue trying to get into the Cathedral itself, with the result that the performance started a good 10-15 minutes late. As the performance was being broadcast 'live' on the Third Programme, this produced about eight minutes complete silence over the radio, other than the shuffling of our feet as we tried to get to our seats. "It sounded like a bear pit", according to Britten. Recently I heard a copy of the broadcast, and sure enough there is a prolonged lull between the end of the announcer's prepared speech, and the start of the music. I'm told that in the BBC archives there is a letter from a grateful listener saying that in fact the silence had allowed her some moments of quiet contemplation for what was to come!" Tony Palmer Film director

"My first recollection of War Requiem was as an 18 year old student, charged with writing a first year university essay. I'm sure the essay in question was no work of international scholarship, but the sheer brilliance and panache of this extraordinary piece moved me deeply. The subtlety of the Owen settings I fear I understood far less, but it was at a much later stage of my musical development that I came to understand, and love deeply, the power of the written word.As so often with Britten, this is a work of extreme paradox: a work that still feels determinedly 'modern', yet is somehow rooted in the tonal system, stretched almost to breaking point; a work of great complexity often built up from the simplest and most memorable fragments – bells, marches, drum-beats, fanfares, chanting, gamelan effects, to name but a few. I have performed it in a number of countries where English is barely understood (and, let's be frank, Owen's poetry is challenging enough for most native English speakers) and yet a good performance will, as at the first performance, leave an audience in stunned silence, often for many seconds.

Nothing here is quite as it seems. Who would notice that the opening theme of the Libera me – that glorious, lumpen, obscene travesty of a march – will re-emerge, note for note, at the great climax of the same movement? How many are aware that that apocalyptic G minor chord, first played on full organ at the movement's great climax, is sustained for almost four minutes into the next song, as the voice gropes desperately at every dissonant note? And yet, who needs to know? All this abundant compositional genius, even if sometimes derided in the past, is clearly at the service of an emotional impact which seems, if anything, to accumulate over the years.

At the heart of this work is the extraordinary tension between the visionary glory of a much desired afterlife, as expressed in the time-honoured and heartfelt words of the Catholic liturgy, and the searing fury of Owen's poetry, born of ghastly experience. The anger of these poems seems as raw and disconcerting today as the day they were written. Had the libretto been written to order, one might marvel at its conciseness, and its arresting juxtaposition of ideas. That it was collated by Britten himself underlines not only the composer's great love of poetry, but also his deep understanding of musical and literary syntax.

For somebody who has recorded so much music of the earlier periods, it is a particular challenge to record a piece of music that the composer himself preserved on disc. Of course, Britten's legendary Decca recording will, on one level, remain an unsurpassable benchmark. But the act of composition is an act of giving to posterity; the act of performing what is now a canonic work of the repertoire should also be an expression of deepest respect and greatest love. As with all classical music, times will change and perspectives will alter, as they should if music is to remain relevant and contemporary. The parable that is War Requiem – that brilliant and passionate meeting of two great pacifist minds, the decorated soldier Owen and the conscientious objector Britten – remains as relevant to us now, as ever, even 100 years from the First World War and 50 years since the work's premiere.

Alas, one can still only hope for a more peaceful world in which its profound message is irrelevant." Paul McCreesh

"I was thrilled to be asked by Paul McCreesh to lead this wonderful project. Aldeburgh is my musical home. I spent years working there with wonderful musicians, including Peter Pears, so to be recording War Requiem at the beginning of a new year was a very moving experience. I had played in the chamber orchestra before, but not in the main orchestra, so it was extremely enriching to be involved on "the other side", as it were! My favourite moment of the work comes at the very end: after everything that has gone before, it is the most exquisite and painfully beautiful moment. We had a memorable time in the recording sessions, immersed in indescribably powerful music and with such an energetic atmosphere in the room; Paul is a great collaborator and really listens to the musicians he is working with – a rare thing in a conductor, in my experience! I await the release of this recording with eager anticipation..." Jacqueline Shave Leader

"War Requiem is a work that makes me feel both absolutely Polish and a citizen of the world; a sense of living right now and almost a century ago all at once. Listening to this music, and delighting in the beauty of the poetry, I feel deeply and reflect prayerfully; I love and hate; I mourn and rejoice. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua – voices appearing from everywhere, growing louder and more terrifying – like intrusive thoughts – and then the trumpets and horns almost exploding in an ecstatic Hosanna – what more could one hope for? Pure magic!" Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny Director, Wrocław Philharmonic Choir

"Whether it was the particular combination of forces hand-picked for this project – the cream of British talent with the passionate commitment of the wonderful Polish chorus – or simply the power of the piece itself, I don't know, but when the atmosphere of a rehearsal and recording is as electrically charged as a performance, then you know you are in for something special. It certainly helped me find the necessary existential thrill you need to soar over a massive chorus and orchestra when you are standing solitary in their midst – particularly when rising to the great climax of the Libera me!" Susan Gritton Soprano

"What a pleasure to take part again in a large scale Gabrieli-Wrocław project. The regular collaborations we have enjoyed with our Polish friends over the years allowed us to find a unified and flexible sound very quickly; it was great to see familiar faces and we all knew what to expect from one another. In contrast, working with young singers always keeps us on our toes, Polish and English alike! They bring so much enthusiasm and allow us to experience the power of this piece again 'for the first time'. Having only ever performed this piece a few times in concert myself, and never with enough rehearsal, it was a joy in these sessions to be able to devote the time necessary to find the wide range of colours, moods, and intensities Britten demands. Paul was on top form, ever pleading, ever inspiring, electrifying in his passion for this music. It's what a piece like this needs and it was exhilarating to be part of the action!" Greg Skidmore Baritone

"I decided that my taking part in this recording of the War Requiem would be a private tribute to a composer and a work that I have loved since first experiencing it when, aged 10, a teacher at Salisbury Cathedral School played it to us. The music hit me like a sledgehammer then, as it still does now. The shock of hearing Galina Vishnevskaya's astounding voice is seared into my memory, although when I hear the work now it's the power of the chorus in the Latin mass settings that moves me deeply. Today, a recording of this scale will always be a labour of love and these days of recording sessions were marked out by a feeling of terrific intensity and enjoyment from all involved. I know that this is a recording which I will treasure." Nicholas Daniel Oboist

A singer's job is to convey the emotion of words and music. Some would say that in order to do this it is necessary to maintain a small degree of personal emotional detachment as becoming over-involved can hinder performance. Such a mind-set is impossible in the Libera me. As the movement reaches its apocalyptic climax, I am engulfed by a feeling that can only be described as sheer terror. It is a 'mushroom cloud' moment, giving a horrifying vision of the awful destruction that mankind can deliver upon itself." Angus Smith Tenor

"This project has been an amazing experience for everyone involved, but especially for us young singers, soberingly the same age as Owen and his soldiers. War Requiem is an often uncomfortable journey though a range of rawest human emotions, exploring the hopeless pain and despair of war though powerful texts, brilliant orchestration and often dissonant harmony; these almost vulgar images and sounds contrast with a tantalising vision of peace and rest in an unknown afterlife. But the work offers no easy solution. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to sing this amazing and deeply thought-provoking piece." Callum Harrison Bass

"It was a huge pleasure to record this music in such a warm, friendly and professional working atmosphere, with the sense that we were creating something really quite special. War Requiem has always touched me deeply, especially the brutal and merciless world of war, as portrayed in Owen's poetry and eloquently embodied in Britten's writing for the tenor and baritone soloists. For me, however, the most moving movement came as we performed the Lacrimosa with the soprano soloist. This is staggering and uniquely beautiful music; with all the artistry and emotion that surrounded me, I found myself singing with a lump in my throat, determined to give my all." Ewelina Wojewoda Mezzo-soprano


Gabrieli Consort & Players
Gabrieli are world-renowned interpreters of great vocal and instrumental repertoire spanning from the renaissance to the present day. Formed as an early music ensemble by Paul McCreesh in 1982, Gabrieli has both outgrown and remained true to its original identity. Over thirty years, the ensemble's repertoire has expanded beyond any expectation, but McCreesh's ever-questioning spirit, expressive musicianship and a healthy degree of iconoclasm remain constant features and continue to be reflected in the ensemble's dynamic performances. Its repertoire includes major works of the oratorio tradition, virtuosic a cappella programmes of music from many centuries and mould-breaking reconstructions of music for historical events. Above all, Gabrieli aims to create inspirational and thought-provoking performances which stand out from the crowd.

Today, at the heart of Gabrieli's activities is the development of a pioneering education initiative in the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme. This partnership with leading UK youth choirs has enabled Gabrieli to work extensively with teenagers from across the UK in intensive training programmes focused on recording major works of the oratorio repertoire and performances for such prestigious promoters as the BBC Proms.

Gabrieli has long been renowned for its many award-winning recordings created during a 15 year association with Deutsche Grammophon. In 2010, Paul McCreesh established his own record label Winged Lion which, in its first year alone, released four extremely diverse recordings, underlining Gabrieli's versatility and McCreesh's breadth of vision: A Song of Farewell (English choral repertoire from Morley and Sheppard to Howells and MacMillan), A New Venetian Coronation 1595 (revisiting their famed 1990 recording of music by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli); and two spectacular large-scale oratorio recordings made in conjunction with the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir with the support of the National Forum of Music, Wrocław: Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts and Mendelssohn Elijah.

Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme
The Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme was formed in 2010 to develop choral opportunities for some of the UK's most talented young singers. The participating youth choirs (Chetham's Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir and Ulster Youth Choir) come from different corners of the UK but have all achieved very high standards through the talent and commitment of their inspirational directors and their hard-working members. The project is designed to support these endeavours, to develop technical skills and to open up a wider range of repertoire opportunities; most importantly, it helps young people to engage with core repertoire of the classical tradition through shared performance at the highest level.

Central to the scheme is the creation of tailored coaching projects for each of the choirs, led by Gabrieli's singers and coaches and Artistic Director Paul McCreesh. Coaching projects focus on significant oratorio works, preparing youth choir members for major concert performances with the Gabrieli Consort & Players and enabling the UK's next generation to achieve their full musical potential, whether as performers or music lovers of the future.

Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir was founded in 2006 by Andrzej Kosendiak. Under the leadership of Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny, this dynamic choir soon established itself as a leading force in Polish choral music. Their repertoire encompasses a wide range of a cappella choral music as well as large-scale oratorio and choral-orchestral works.

Whilst continually expanding its work across Europe, the choir made its first tour of the United States of America in 2013. They have performed at many prominent European venues and festivals and were the first Polish choir to appear at the BBC Proms. In 2011 at the Varaždin Baroque Evenings festival in Croatia, the choir received the Kantor Award for exceptional performance of works by Johann Sebastian Bach. The choir enjoys established relationships with such ensembles as the Gabrieli Consort and NDR Orchestra and has worked with conductors Paul McCreesh, Jacek Kaspszyk, Krzysztof Penderecki, James MacMillan and Bob Chilcott.

Paul McCreesh
Paul McCreesh has established himself at the highest levels in both the period instrument and modern orchestral fields and is recognised for his authoritative and innovative performances on the concert platform and in the opera house. Together with the Gabrieli Consort & Players, of which he is the founder and Artistic Director, he has performed in major concert halls and festivals across the world and built a large and distinguished discography both for Deutsche Grammophon and more recently for his own label, Winged Lion.

McCreesh works regularly with major orchestras and choirs, and the larger choral repertoire, such as Britten's War Requiem, Brahms' German Requiem and Haydn's The Creation and The Seasons, feature increasingly in his work. He has established a strong reputation in the field of opera conducting productions of Handel, Gluck and Mozart at leading European opera houses.She has appeared on the world's major stages including the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala and her concert engagements include appearances at the Aldeburgh, Edinburgh, Lucerne, Salzburg and Tanglewood festivals and Three Choirs Festivals and at the BBC Proms where, in 2009, she was a memorable guest soloist at the Last Night. She has recorded prolifically and has twice been nominated for a Grammy Award.

McCreesh is passionate about working with young musicians and enjoys established collaborations with Chetham's School of Music and many youth orchestras and choirs, both in the UK and internationally. He was Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival from 2006 to 2012 and was Director of Brinkburn Music (in Northumberland, UK) from 1993 to 2013. In 2013 he assumed the position of Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser at the Gulbenkian Orchestra, Lisbon.

Susan Gritton
Susan Gritton is one of the foremost lyric sopranos of her generation, acclaimed for her versatility in music ranging from Handel and Mozart to Berg and Strauss. Her many Britten roles include the Governess, Ellen Orford and Female Chorus and she has performed them the world over, from London, Milan and Venice to Tokyo, Sydney as well as at the composer's own Festival in Aldeburgh. Her repertoire also includes Theodora, Rodelinda, Fiordiligi, Donna Anna, Countess Almaviva, Micäela, Countess Madeleine, Liù, Tatyana, Vixen and Blanche. She has appeared at such prestigious opera houses as Covent Garden, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Staatsoper, English National Opera and Glyndebourne.

Equally acclaimed for her appearances on stage and in concert, she has worked with such eminent conductors as Mackerras, Rattle, von Dohnànyi, Harding, Pappano and Elder at orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Swedish Radio Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic and Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Her concert repertoire spans many periods and styles and highlights include Ravel's Shéhérazade, Brahms' German Requiem, Elgar's The Kingdom, Shostakovich's Blok Romances, Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri and Britten's Les Illuminations.

John Mark Ainsley
John Mark Ainsley has appeared with the world's greatest orchestras and conductors, including the London, Boston and San Francisco Symphony orchestras and the London, Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonic orchestras, with Davis, Haitink, Mackerras, Masur, Norrington, Rattle and Abbado.

A highly gifted performer on the opera stage, he was awarded the Munich Festival Prize for his performance as Orfeo. He created the role of 'Der Daemon' in the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze's L'Upupa for the Salzburg Festival and also sang the world premiere of Henze's Phaedra in Berlin and Brussels. 2010 saw his first Captain Vere in the UK in Michael Grandage's production of Billy Budd for the Glyndebourne Festival. He sang Skuratov in Janáček's From the House of the Dead directed by Chereau and conducted by Boulez at the Amsterdam, Vienna and Aix-en-Provence Festivals and subsequently in his house debut at La Scala, Milan under Salonen. He is a Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

Christopher Maltman
Baritone Christopher Maltman has established an international reputation as a versatile artist since first coming to prominence as the winner of the Lieder Prize at the 1997 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

Highlights of his operatic engagements include performances at the great Houses in London, Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Paris and New York in roles ranging from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Papageno, Guglielmo, to Marcello (La Boheme), Posa (Don Carlo), Siskov (From the House of the Dead), Britten's Billy Budd and Birtwistle's Gawain.

He has appeared in concert with the Rotterdam, LA and New York Philharmonic Orchestras, London and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the Filarmonica della Scala with conductors such as Simon Rattle, Colin Davis, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Daniel Harding, Kurt Masur and Christian Thielemann.

He appears regularly in the world's greatest halls including the Vienna Konzerthaus, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, New York's Carnegie Hall, London's Wigmore Hall, and at the Edinburgh, Salzburg and Schwarzenberg Festivals.


Britten War Requiem 1962