C1273. BENJAMIN BRITTEN Cond. City of Birmingham S.O. & Melos Ensemble, w.Heather Harper, Peter Pears & Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: WAR REQUIEM (Cond. by the Composer). (England) Testament SBT 1490, Live Premiere Performance, 1962. - 749677149024
“Testament presents what will undoubtedly be hailed as one of the most important releases of the Britten centenary - the premičre performance of the WAR REQUIEM, recorded live in Coventry Cathedral in May of 1962. The performance is shattering, the sound, surprisingly clear and dynamic. The deep emotion of Wilfred Owen's poetry is portrayed with a power and sincerity that has rarely - if ever - been matched in modern recordings. For the opening performance, it was intended that the soloists should be Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German), to demonstrate a spirit of unity. However, in an ironic twist, the USSR did not permit Vishnevskaya to travel to Coventry for the event. With only ten days' notice, Heather Harper stepped in and performed the soprano role brilliantly. ‘The first performance created an atmosphere of such intensity that by the end I was completely undone; I did not know where to hide my face. Dead friends and past suffering arose in my mind’, Fischer- Dieskau wrote in his autobiography of the WAR REQUIEM premiere. This recording is truly not one to be missed.
Taken from a BBC recording, this single CD preserves the historic first performance in all its messy glory...[Harper] is at her peak, all gleaming beauty and commanding authority; and Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, both in fine voice, match each other in the kind of singing of which history is made.”
- GRAMOPHONE, Dec., 2013
“Heather Harper, a Northern Irish-born soprano who was beloved for decades for her radiant voice and musical sensitivity in repertory ranging from Baroque to contemporary music, and who was a notable interpreter of the music of Benjamin Britten, in 1962 substituted for Galina Vishnevskaya in the premiere of Britten’s WAR REQUIEM. The work was written to dedicate the new Coventry Cathedral in England, the original 14th-century structure having been bombed into ruin during World War II. Ms. Harper, just turned 32, took her place and triumphed.
Reviewing her performance of Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’ at Carnegie Hall in 1969 with Kempe conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, THE NEW YORK TIMES critic Donal Henahan wrote that Ms. Harper’s reading was ‘an ennobling one, suffused with dignity and serenity, touched with autumnal sadness’. Her voice, he added, ‘produced the Straussian outpourings effortlessly’.
Helena, the young Athenian lover in Britten’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, was the role of Ms. Harper’s debut at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 1962. Britten later chose her as Mrs. Coyle, the warm-hearted tutor’s wife, for the premiere of his opera OWEN WINGRAVE, written for television and first broadcast in 1971. She later recorded both operas with Britten conducting.
Her most notable Britten role was Ellen, the good-hearted schoolmistress in PETER GRIMES, in an acclaimed 1969 BBC production with Mr. Pears in the title role, which he had created 24 years earlier. It was conducted by Britten and staged by Joan Cross. Ms. Harper later performed and recorded the role with Jon Vickers, who brought smoldering intensity to his portrayal of Grimes, with Colin Davis conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera.
Ellen was also one of two roles she sang at the Metropolitan Opera in 1977 during her only season with the company. Yet she also brought shimmering sound and tenderness to works like Handel’s MESSIAH, which she recorded in 1966 in a classic version with Mr. Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Ms. Harper’s stage debut in opera came in 1954 with the Oxford University Opera Club in an unlikely role: the fierce Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s MACBETH, a punishing part. From that point on her career progressed steadily, with appearances at Covent Garden, the Glyndebourne Festival and major houses in Amsterdam, Toronto, Buenos Aires and elsewhere.
Ms. Harper, a woman of good cheer and dedication, became a favorite of the tempestuous conductor George Solti, who brought her to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for several major performances during the late 1960s and 1970s, including Haydn’s THE CREATION and Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony.
She was a soloist in Solti’s milestone recording of Mahler’s epic Eighth Symphony, also with the Chicago Symphony, in Vienna; it won three Grammy Awards in 1972.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 24 April, 2019