Saturday, November 11, 2006

Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm...

In honor of Veteran's Day, I compared and contrasted two recordings of Britten's War Requiem, one with Simon Keenlyside, Ian Bostridge, and Susan B. Anthony, and the other with Gerald Finley, Anthony Dean Griffey, and Christine Brewer.

Orchestra: I can't remember what orchestra played on the Keenlyside version or who the conductor was, and it was just a radio recording, so the recording dynamics were probably different. Overall, though, I feel the tempi are better and the orchestra is more homogeneous. In the Finley, Kurt Masur holds the orchestra back and makes them go too slow in places when the music should be building. The crescendoes, which are so crushing in the Keenlyside, are kind of ho-hum. The Keenlyside version, as it moves toward “Strange Meeting”, becomes like an aural Armageddon (I mean that in a good way), with the choirs like hosts of angels (not the pretty floaty angels; the battling kind). In the Finley version, the choirs just sound like packs of zombies. The balance seems wrong—you can hear more detail in the orchestra, which is kind of cool especially with the percussion, but certain instruments stand out too much. It's the same with the choir; you can hear a few choir members very loudly, whereas in the Keenlyside version, they sound like a unified whole.

Soprano: I wasn't particularly fond of Susan B. Anthony (and was frankly baffled as to why someonewould name their child that, right down to the middle initial) when I first heard her, but in comparison to Christine Brewer on the Finley recording, she’s brilliant. She can be shrill, strident, and shrieky, and a couple times she sounds like a chicken that’s trying to imitate the sound of a frog, but Brewer is terrible, with lots of Kermiting and bizarre throaty noises.

Tenor: Even though I’m not particularly partial to the English tenor sound, I kind of like Ian Bostridge as long as he’s staying in works in his appropriate fach. When he sings “Erbarme’ Dich”, I just want to tell him to fuck off and leave it to the countertenors, but in the War Requiem, he’s very good. He makes some very unearthly sounds when it’s necessary, but he also infuses his words with contempt and anger when he has to. Anthony Dean Griffey in the other version is just bad. His voice is similar to Bostridge’s, but he lacks any softness or roundness to his sound, and it ends up at a constant whine. His line readings are also very choppy, as if he were singing karaoke and being fed the words line by line. He tries to sound more lyrical at times, but these flourishes seem extraneous, unwritten, and they don’t follow the music. Bostridge may approach things a little too intellectually from time to time, but at least I get something out of his singing. With Griffey, I just want him to shut up.

Baritone: This is what makes the recording for me (or doesn’t, as the case may be). If Keenlyside were teamed with Brewer and Griffey, I’d still be able to sit through it without too much complaining. But Finley just doesn’t step up and perform in the way I know he can. First of all, I suspect that the part is really too high for him, since it was written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was not a bass-baritone as Finley is. In trying to sustain the high tessitura (I’m probably misusing that), Finley’s usually rich voice thins out in most parts and becomes nasal and wiry. He’s a very good actor, vocally as well as physically, but he doesn’t display any of that here. It doesn’t seem like he’s really feeling what he’s singing, and I feel like instead of approaching the War Requiem as what I think it is—a requiem for the recently dead generation of young men destroyed in a senseless war—he approached it as just something to sing prettily. I think the male soloists should be enraged, full of anger, contempt, and disgust; they’re singing about young men being mowed down in their prime for no reason other than politics. The major difference between Finley and Keenlyside here is that one sounds like he’s just telling it (and hardly even that; even one recounting the story of World War I should get pretty pissed off), while the other sounds like he’s living it. In “Strange Meeting”, I can picture Keenlyside as the German soldier in the tomblike trench, face smeared with blood and filth, eyes glazed with death.

Right before Keenlyside sings the last lines of “Strange Meeting” (“I am the enemy you killed, my friend…”), there is a strange, creepy violin sound and then a sudden halt, that always just chills my blood, which is then repeated after each following line. So, you have these jolts from the violin, and then Keenlyside singing these lines, these wonderful, terrible lines, in this painful, beautiful way. It’s a moment of extended frisson, in the truest sense of cold, shivering, shuddering. There is the paradox of “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”, which just sums up the War so perfectly—there was really no good side or evil side, just thousands upon thousands of dead young men, united by the fact that they didn’t know why they died or for what. When Keenlyside describes how he was killed, his voice goes flat and cold at first, but when he sings “I parried, but my hands were loath and cold”, there’s a sigh in his voice, a sigh of release. It’s haunting.

The best analogy I can come up with when comparing the two recordings is that the Finley recording is like Rupert Brooke reading Owen’s poems, whereas the Keenlyside version is like Owen reading his own poems, complete with the bitterness, the rancor, and the sadness. There is no beauty in war, and yet so much beauty came out of World War I, in the poetry, the literature, the paintings. It’s a harsh, occasionally rough beauty, but it’s beauty all the same. And that’s what I think the Keenlyside recording captures.

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