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[CLASSICAL DVD REVIEWS]

By Bradley Winterton

Britten's War Requiem of 1962 was something of a hit in its day, at least in classical music terms. There were dissenting voices, but generally it was felt that it boldly embodied anti-war sentiments at the Cold War's height. The Cuban Missile Crisis was to surface only months after its premiere (at the dedication of the UK's rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by enemy bombing in World War II). And the horrors of the Vietnam War were still to come, and with them the more populist protests from the hippie musical flowering of that extraordinary era. But Britten’s creation could be argued to have set the tone early on for what was soon to become a worldwide anti-war movement.

Video Artists International has now issued the TV film of its American premiere, at Tanglewood in what was then called the Berkshire Festival in 1963, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. It’s in black-and-white, and the stilted enunciation forced on the soloists by the idiom was soon to be rejected out of hand by the emerging youth movement. Even so, the cumulative power of the War Requiem is undeniable.

Fury at the hideous brutality of all wars is its dominant motivation. Britten was a lifelong pacifist and he’d originally planned a requiem for Mahatma Ghandi, the pioneer of passive resistance rather than violent protest. But this commission proved irresistible, and for it he used the material he already had in mind admirably.

The use of Wilfred Owen’s World War I war poetry is enormously effective. Indeed, it’s these poems that really drive the work, with the music forcing them into the consciousness one more time. Owen’s retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac, with Abraham not sacrificing the ram at all, but Isaac “and half the seed of Europe, one by one,” is absolutely devastating in Britten’s setting. And the way the work begins by alternating the poems with the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead, and then has the two going on simultaneously, is extremely strong.

This 40-year-old version isn’t going to cut much ice with some people. But it’s an historic re-issue, and all the more important in an age when there are wars being waged with far less public protest than the artists of the 1960s hurled at their politicians.

The BBC TV Great Composers features of 1997 were re-issued on DVD by the US company Kultur (www.kultur.com) in 2006. Seven composers — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Puccini — are each the subject of a 59-minute film. Of the five I’ve seen (I’ve not yet found Tchaikovsky or Mahler), the most impressive are those dealing with Bach and Mozart.

The format is standard. The life is outlined (with Kenneth Branagh narrating), excerpts of the music are played, and distinguished musicians and commentators give their views. What’s impressive about the Mozart program is that it manages to give quite a sophisticated analysis of how perspectives on his music have shifted over the last half century, darkening the collective view and at the same time deepening our appreciation of his musical seriousness. (The older view, dating from the 19th century’s embracing of the ambitious world of Romanticism, was that Mozart was delightful but lightweight, a sort of permanent child).

The US musicologist Charles Rosen and the UK opera director Jonathan Miller provide the most searching analyses on both composers. On Bach (who also had to wait until the 20th century for a full appreciation), Rosen marvels at his gigantic achievement from his relative isolation in 18th-century Leipzig. Miller, by contrast, muses on the deeper meaning of the B Minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion — not really dependent on doctrinal belief, he says, but meditations on the mortality common to us all. Our shared mission is to die, he concludes.

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