The new recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by Antonio Pappano, is a little terrifying, especially released so close to Remembrance Day. To begin with, Britten makes bold choices in his use of language: he writes opera in English, for one, instead of the more traditional Italian or German. Britten is obviously a different kind of storyteller in that the soundscape, instead of the lyrics, constructs a narrative.
This music is not the kind of thing a person listens to on their morning commute; indeed, this is the first time in a while that I’ve purposely sat down and listened to such a long piece. For me, music is usually a backdrop to another activity, like making a grocery list or folding the laundry, but with War Requiem, this is essentially impossible. The disjointed rhythms and powerful vocals command attention and refuse to be ignored.
War Requiem is stealthy. At times, it’s nearly non-existent or deceivingly cheerful or gentle, only to come crashing in a moment later with vocals powerful enough to shatter any sense of security. I became somewhat wary of the music, kept in a constant state of fight-or-flight jumpiness. This, I think, is what Britten was after: a brutal piece that provides no sense of soothing or relaxation, but rather a sense-jarring experience that doesn’t exactly imitate, but at least acknowledges, the fear and violence of war.
Not a particular connoisseur of classical music myself, listening to Britten’s War Requiem was nonetheless an experience that pushed the boundaries of my personal musical comfort zone. Released just in time for Britten’s 100th birthday on November 22, this album seems an appropriate way to commemorate the composer and those still keeping his music alive.
War Requiem will be released on November 19.