C0255. BENJAMIN BRITTEN Cond. English Chamber Orch. & Aldeburgh Festival Chorus; Heather Harper, Alfreda Hodgson, Peter Pears & John Shirley-Quirk: REQUIEM, K.626 (Mozart), Live Performance, 20 June, 1971, Aldeburgh Festival; Benjamin Britten in conversation with Donald Mitchell, 1969, Aldeburgh. (England) BBC Legends 4119. - Long out-of-print, Final Sealed Copy! - 684911411928
“It is said that when the angels sing, they sing Mozart: if that is true, then when the angels mourn, they sing the REQUIEM thus.
This recording, simply put, is radiant with glory. It quite possibly may be the apotheosis of Britten’s life-long love affair with Mozart, and his accomplishments as a conductor. Listening to it again – and again – I cannot but think that this is what Mozart meant when he wrote this work.
Recorded four years before Britten’s death, and at a time of illness, it may also represent an attempt to come to terms with his own mortality, as he would do later in his last opera, DEATH IN VENICE (1973). Indeed, at one point in the REQUIEM, after the great fugue in the Hostias, Britten puts down his baton for a moment, saying of this later that ‘he just had to stop’. Such is the power of this performance that we perfectly understand what he meant.
There are a few interesting peculiarities in this performance. Foremost among these is that Britten, dissatisfied with the (‘at times rudimentary’) Süssmayr completion of this work, and in particular bars 5-18 of the ‘Tuba Mirum’, adds additional parts for violin and viola, allowing a richer texture for the trombone, tenor, and bass to rest upon. One may think this is an audacious sort of thing to do. For those dogmatically insistent upon period instrument performance as the only valid way to approach this work, this recording is thoroughly improper. However Britten, as the 20th century’s premiere composer of vocal dramas, was uniquely qualified to refine Süssmayr’s completion. In other places there are very minor additions and omissions as to the standard markings, but such is Britten’s devotion to Mozart’s conception that these are hardly intrusive or uncalled for.
The tempi are sprightly or solemn as required - one would expect well-chosen tempi from Britten. The crescendi and decrescendi of the choir are revelatory in their impact. The cast of soloists, all fairly familiar figures at Aldeburgh, seem to transcend themselves in this passionate performance, and while they are perhaps not beyond fault, certainly they all bring a deep musicality and powerful conception to their parts. The English Chamber Orchestra’s size allows for an ideal mixture of transparency and breadth, and all the soloists play impeccably, as one would expect from an ensemble held to Britten’s high standards.
In both the minute details and broader conception, this performance astounds. The only negative element to this recording is the less-than-ideal sound quality, but while there is significant tape hiss, one ceases to notice it as the work shines into being. In short, the sound is certainly tolerable, and should absolutely not dissuade anyone from hearing this masterful version of Mozart’s last and most profound work.
Finally, the recorded conversation between Benjamin Britten and Donald Mitchell is an enlightening addition to one’s understanding of the man. It is fascinating to hear the thoughts of a man as erudite and accomplished as Britten, and Mitchell is a tasteful and incisive interviewer. The conversation ranges from the vicissitudes of television, to the benefits (or the lack thereof) of composition lessons, to the impact of tradition, to the essential characteristics of humanity. It is a delightful addition to this already priceless performance, available on CD for the first time.
At one point in his conversation with Mr. Mitchell, Britten mentions that recently he was reading a play of Euripides, and he felt that, despite its being written more than three thousand years ago, its situations and characters could easily be transferred to contemporary society. Because ‘human nature remains curiously the same’, Britten says, the work ‘seemed as if it was written yesterday’. And in listening to this performance of Mozart’s REQUIEM, one feels that Mozart’s genius, as well as Britten’s, and the surpassing beauty of their posthumous collaboration, are as vital and true as the sunrise.”
- John R. Sisk, musicweb-international
“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