Eighty years ago Benjamin Britten caught the sombre mood of the times with his Sinfonia da Requiem. His concise three-movement symphony has often been recorded since its premiere but rarely with greater intensity or conviction than in its latest interpretation by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts a requiem for our times. The spellbinding interpretation is set for release by Deutsche Grammophon as an e‑album on 16 October 2020.
Sinfonia da Requiem was commissioned by the Japanese government in 1939 for a concert to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of Japan’s ruling dynasty. Written for an enormous orchestra complete with saxophone, two sets of timpani and piano, the piece was rejected soon after its completion the following year, ostensibly because of its 26-year-old composer’s choice of Latin titles from the Catholic Mass for the dead. Britten later recalled how he was accused by a senior Japanese official “of insulting a friendly power, of providing a Christian work where Christianity was apparently unacceptable, that the work was gloomy, and so on”. Although Sinfonia da Requiem was first performed in New York in 1941, its original score remains in Tokyo and was used for a one-off performance there by the CBSO and Sir Simon Rattle.
In addition to marking the work’s 80th anniversary and celebrating the CBSO’s centenary year, the recording also allows listeners the chance to reflect on Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s critically acclaimed artistic partnership with her Birmingham colleagues. The 34-year-old Lithuanian conductor, who succeeded Andris Nelsons as Music Director four years ago, has won a devoted following with the blend of passion and precision she brings to everything in her strikingly wide repertoire.
“Whenever the CBSO play Britten, you can feel their deep affection for his music,” she notes. “This incredible orchestra gave the world premiere of Britten’s War Requiem in 1962, a piece that includes clear references to Sinfonia da Requiem. They worked many times with the composer and made a superb studio recording of Sinfonia da Requiem with Simon Rattle in the early 1980s, so I’m delighted that Deutsche Grammophon chose to record our performance at the start of the 2019–20 season. This new recording shows how musicians in our troubled world identify so closely with the emotions of a piece written while Europe was being torn apart by Hitler and Stalin. Sinfonia da Requiem sounds a warning against aggression and hatred. But it also offers a sense of comfort and hope at its end. I think what it has to tell us is as important now as it was 80 years ago.”
Beyond her work in Birmingham, Gražinytė-Tyla is in high demand as a guest conductor, and is scheduled to perform with the Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the first half of 2021. Her DG debut album, comprising Mieczysław Weinberg’s Symphonies Nos.2 and 21 recorded with the CBSO and Kremerata Baltica, was hailed by Gramophone following its release in May 2019 for its “fierce concentration and absolute dedication”. Following the news on 22 September 2020 that the album had won the Orchestral category of this year’s Gramophone Classical Music Awards, when the virtual ceremony took place on 6 October, Gražinytė-Tyla was presented not only with the Orchestral prize, but also with the coveted Recording of the Year Award – a tribute to the exceptional performances given by the conductor and her players, and to the music of a composer she describes as “a symbol of humanism”.