BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 / City of Birmingham Symphony Orch.; Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla, conductor / Deutsche Grammophon 4839072, available for streaming or download
Recorded on October 9, 2019, this strange, very brief recording is now issued by DGG only as a download/streaming album. This is clearly something new for the famed German label, but apparently the great conductor, currently hunkered down due to the Coronavirus and not currently performing, wanted to release it at this time.
This Requiem is unusual in that it is purely instrumental, in fact a 20-minute symphony in three movements. Written in 1940 by the pacifist composer, it was, ironically, commissioned by the Japanese government to mark the 260th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese empire. Ironically, Japan rejected it due to the Roman Catholic titles for the three movements and somber character, but it made a great impression in its premiere performance by the New York Philharmonic directed by John Barbirolli. And interestingly, its Boston performance under Serge Koussevitzky led to the commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation for Britten to write his opera Peter Grimes.
The music is superb, very much in Britten’s best pre-war style when he was still under the influence of Frank Bridge. There are somber but recognizably lyric melodic lines, skillfully crafted to create a work of dark beauty. As is her wont, Gražinyté-Tyla digs deep under the skin of the music, playing up each and every dramatic moment as if her life depended on it.
One thing I found interesting in this piece was the almost martial tone of the “Dies irae,” which also includes—oddly enough—an alto saxophone solo. I also liked the way he linked the three movements to make a continuous piece of it; and again, in the last section, “Requiem aeternam,” he pulls the rug out of your expectations by making it a placid, almost upbeat piece, as if eternal rest were a reward for the dead rather than something awful to be afraid of.
Short as it is, this is clearly one of the finest classical recordings of the year. I think what surprised me most was that this Requiem could easily have been tacked onto her DGG recording of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 21, “Kaddish,” which ran just a bit over one CD and was another dramatic work in a similar vein but otherwise, this is a gem.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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