BRITTEN: War Requiem, Op. 66.   Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20.  Ballad of Heroes, Op. 14.
Heather Harper, soprano; Philip Langridge, tenor; Martyn Hill, tenor (Ballad); John Shirley-Quirk, bass-baritone; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Richard Hickox, cond.
CHANDOS CHSA 5007 (2 CDs) TT:  61:58 & 63:40
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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS:  A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (Original 1913 version).  BUTTERWORTH:  The Banks of Green Willow.
London Symphony Orch/Richard Hickox, cond.
CHANDOS CHSA 5001 (2 CDs) TT:  67:39
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Without question these are the two major Chandos surround sound issues in their first batch of five.  The Britten disk, recorded in February 1991, won two Gramophone awards, one for best choral recording, the other for finest engineering.  Hickox is a master of this repertory, he has fine choruses and the London Symphony at its best, along with a trio of outstanding soloists.  Although War Requiem was written with soprano Galina Vishnevskaya in mind, it was Heather Harper who sang the premiere in 1962 when the Russian soprano was indisposed (although Vishnevskaya did perform it a number of times later including the famous Decca recording made about a year after the premiere, in which she was joined by tenor Peter Pears and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). Harper, Philip Langridge and John Shirley-Quirk are their equal.  There is no lack of outstanding recordings of this major choral work of the 20th Century.  Of course of particular interest is the composer's own recording mentioned above, and a fine live 1969 BBC recording conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini has been reviewed on this site.  Ballad of Heroes, a much earlier work composed for a festival in 1939, scored for tenor, chorus and orchestra, has its dramatic moments in its 18-minute span, but only suggests the grandeur of War Requiem.  For sheer sound, the highlight of this set is Sinfonia da Requiem, scored for orchestra alone, given an incredibly dynamic performance brilliantly recorded.  The 5-channel surround sound surely adds more presence to the performances, but everything is in front with ambience/hall sound from the rear.  Recorded in St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, in London, the Chandos engineering team has successfully captured choruses and orchestra, with the soloists perhaps a bit overly close. For a sonic showpiece, try the second movement of Sinfonia da Requiem (track 3 on CD II). This is a bass-heavy recording; perhaps we are fortunate it is 5-channel instead of 5.1 (the .1 would be solely low frequency information) - and there's plenty of that already.  It's unfortunate producers didn't provide separate tracks for different sections of Dies irae of the Requiem.

The Vaughan Williams CD is one of a kind, the original 1913 version of the Symphony No. 2, the familiar London symphony,  including everything the composer cut after the 1914 premiere. The performance is magnificent in every way, and it is perfect to preface it with The Banks of Green Willow, a lovely miniature by George Butterworth who in 1911 suggested to Vaughan Williams that he write a purely orchestral symphony resulting in the London symphony.  These performances were recorded in December 2000 in All Saints' Church, Tooting, London, a very resonant site indeed.  As with the Britten, the Chandos surround sound focuses on the front with ambient/hall sound from the back - it works very well indeed.  However, the church's resonance results in massive unfocused bass not totally tamed by the engineers. It's impressive, to be sure, but your woofers will have quite a workout producing all these low sounds that don't always seem to relate to natural sound of an orchestra.  Even though original issues of both of these sets were superb from a sonic standpoint, there's no question SACD produces a clearer, cleaner reproduction of the entire orchestra.  I look forward to future SACD issues from Chandos.

R.E.B. (May 2003)