DID YOU SING FOR BRITTEN?

BENJAMIN BRITTEN’S BOYS’ CHOIR REUNION

DECCA RECORDS LAUNCHES SEARCH FOR ORIGINAL CHORISTERS ON BENJAMIN BRITTEN’S LEGENDARY 1963 ‘WAR REQUIEM’ RECORDING

Simon Preston at the organ, with Highgate School Choir in the balcony, at Kingsway Hall

London, 7 Dec, 2023. Following the release of the newly restored and remastered version of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, Decca Records is searching for the original choristers, from Highgate Boys School Choir, who performed on the legendary recording in 1963, making history as they sang.

Starting with a call out in an advert in London’s Ham & High newspaper, Decca hopes to hear from as many surviving choir members as possible – who share the unique memory of being conducted by composer Benjamin Britten 60 years ago – and bring them together again to hear the new high-definition transfer of what has since become a defining recording in the history of classical music.

The original album went on to win two GRAMMY Awards and was described as being “among the most magnetic performances of British music ever put on record” by Gramophone magazine.

To ensure a successful restoration, the four fragile tape reels of the recording were baked to prevent further oxide shedding. The 24bit 192kHz transfers from the original stereo mastertapes now offer unparalleled resolution and ensure that this definitive recording will resonate with new audiences for generations to come.  

Also captured at the 1963 session, at Kingsway Hall in London, were the secret recordings of Benjamin Britten’s rehearsals, as he himself conducted the soloists, three choirs, ensemble and orchestra. The Engineer (Peter Van Biene) and Assistant Engineer (Michael Mailes) were assigned to oversee and edit the secret recordings, and worked with Producer (John Mordler) in a concealed control room with one microphone, and another on the conductor’s podium, to record Britten’s voice. Benjamin Britten can be heard addressing and directing the musicians and choristers: “Boys I know it’s first thing in the morning but please don’t make it sound like it is”. The rehearsal recording was gifted to Britten on his 50th birthday, in November 1963, and is released today on vinyl (LP?) for the first time.

As recently highlighted in The Sunday Times, “for most of the musicians present at the sessions, war wasn’t an entry in a history book but something they had lived through.” Decca Classics’ Label Director, Dominic Fyfe points out, “The music and what the texts were about had a meaning for them that you simply can’t replicate in another generation.”

The surviving members of the original 1963 recording team, and composer John Rutter (who sang in the choir as a teenager) recently visited Decca’s London offices for a playback of the new HD remastering. John Rutter shared cherished memories recounting how the Decca engineers had the measure of the new stereo sound medium in a way which served the music so well. “That’s now been brought out absolutely to the full in this new remastering … It’s a marvellous achievement.”

Decca recording crew Michael Mailes (who joined Decca in 1951) and Peter Van Biene (in 1962), now in their 80s, were both transported back in time to that day at Kingsway Hall and moved to tears by hearing the Dolby Atmos mix from the original stereo mastertapes. “It sounds like it was recorded yesterday,” they remarked. 

This has spurred Decca on to find any choristers from the original recording to attend an exclusive listening session event at Decca’s London offices, meet each other again, and be photographed together, 60 years later.

About Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem:

Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, op. 66 – featuring the three soloists for whom it was originally composed: Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), The Bach Choir, London Symphony Chorus, Highgate School Choir, Melos Ensemble, and London Symphony Orchestra – is a musical masterpiece that combines the ‘Latin Requiem Mass’ with poignant verses by Wilfred Owen. It remains a powerful testament to the enduring impact of war on humanity.