wed 26/11/2014

Galina Vishnevskaya on Britten and his War Requiem | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Galina Vishnevskaya on Britten and his War Requiem

Redoubtable Russian soprano who died earlier this week reflecting in 1988 on the creation of a masterpiece

Vishnevskaya in 1963, the year she recorded and gave her first public performance of the War Requiem

One of Russia’s greatest and most inspirational sopranos, Galina Vishnevskaya died on 11 December at the age of 86. To the world at large, she will probably be most famous for taking an heroic stand alongside her husband, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, against the Soviet authorities over the treatment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn; in 1974, the couple were stripped of their citizenship as a result.

Inside the Soviet Union up to that point she had long been the Bolshoi Opera’s prima donna assoluta, and though she went on to record some roles past her prime, there are peerless documents of her earlier Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Katerina Izmailova in the revised version of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Peerless in Russian song, she is unsurpassed in her interpretations of Musorgsky.

Vishnevskaya in Sokurov's AlexandraMore recently Vishnevskaya made an uncompromising film debut as a straight actress playing Catherine the Great and later, even more remarkably, the bewildered grandmother searching for her grandson during a Chechen-like war in Sokurov’s Alexandra (pictured right). Sokurov also made a film about the soprano and her husband. But perhaps her most extraordinary association with another great creative artist came in the early 1960s when Benjamin Britten came to know her voice and wrote for her the soprano role in his masterly War Requiem. I interviewed Vishnevskaya in 1988, at a time when the classic Decca recording was due to accompany Derek Jarman’s film of the same name, released the following year. Some of the details are reflected in her hair-raising autobiography Galina: A Russian Story; others would seem to be exclusive to our interview.

CREATIVE genius and the inspiration gleaned from close personal friends were always inseparable in Britten’s case. Who can say what turn his operatic style, not to mention his choice of subject-matter, would have taken without the unique personal and vocal qualities – to Britten, they came to the same thing – of Peter Pears, or whether the repertoire for cello, harp and guitar would have been enriched by him at all had it not been for the respective personalities of Mstislav Rostropovich, Osian Ellis and Julian Bream? And the extraordinary richness of the War Requiem, not least the masterstroke of setting the Wilfred Owen poems for tenor, baritone and chamber orchestra against the broader canvas of the Latin mass for the dead entrusted to soprano, chorus and full orchestra, springs almost entirely from Britten’s admiration for three remarkable artists: Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Galina Vishnevskaya.

Exactly what prompted Britten to compose War Requiem in the form we know it remains obscure, although he seems to have had a plea for peace in mind from the start in writing for an English tenor and a German baritone. The idea of a soprano part – and a Latin text – came later. In 1961, Vishnevskaya gave an extraordinary recital at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival (the composer had already heard Rostropovich, her husband, playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1. the previous September and had already composed a Cello Sonata for him). She recalls the circumstances: "In those days Soviet artists rarely travelled abroad, and I wanted in this one recital to show what I was capable of. In the first half I sang arias from Norma, La forza del destino and Aida; in the second, songs by Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev. And finally Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. That was a kind of pudding, really!"

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