Britten's Albert Herring
The Gramophone Choice
Christopher Gillett ten Albert Herring Josephine Barstow sop Lady Billows Felicity Palmer contr Florence Pike Peter Savidge bar Mr Gedge Robert Lloyd bass Superintendent Budd Stuart Kale ten Mr Upfold Susan Gritton sop Miss Wordsworth Della Jones mez Mrs Herring Gerald Finley bar Sid Ann Taylor mez Nancy Yvette Bonner sop Emmie Témimé Bowling sop Cis Matthew Long treb Harry Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford
Naxos 8 660107/8 (142' · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Vivid as Hickox’s traversal of the score for Chandos may be, Bedford’s is just that much more alert, crisper. With his long experience of Britten in the theatre, dating back to Death in Venice under the composer’s aegis, his timing carries unique authority and, in better sound than the old Decca set (below) can now offer, he even has the edge over the composer’s obviously definitive reading. Bedford’s players are at least as accomplished as Hickox’s, and are caught in a more immediate, less reverberant acoustic.
As for the singers, in almost every case Bedford’s are the equal of, or superior to, Hickox’s and several surpass Britten’s. For instance, Albert was never one of Peter Pears’s happiest assumptions; Christopher Gillett makes a more credible mother’s boy and does well when he decides to break loose. Where the crucial role of Lady Billows is concerned, Josephine Barstow’s commanding performance may not quite be on a par with Sylvia Fisher for Britten, but the difference is small. Susan Gritton gives us a dotty and cleanly sung Miss Wordsworth (Margaret Ritchie, the role’s creator, must have sounded like this), Robert Lloyd is a simpleton of a Budd (as well sung as any), and Felicity Palmer makes a wonderfully fussy Florence Pike.
It only remains to laud once again the score’s many delights as regards technical mastery and subtle characterisation, and to suggest you hurry off to enjoy a real bargain.
Peter Pears ten Albert Herring Sylvia Fisher sop Lady Billows Johanna Peters contr Florence Pike John Noble bar Mr Gedge Owen Brannigan bass Superintendent Budd Edgar Evans ten Mr Upfold April Cantelo sop Miss Wordsworth Sheila Rex mez Mrs Herring Joseph Ward ten Sid Catherine Wilson mez Nancy English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten
Decca London 421 849-2LH2 (138‘ · ADD · N/T) Recorded 1964. Buy from Amazon
Also available in ‘The Complete Britten Operas, Vol 1’, also containing Owen Wingrave, Billy Budd and Peter Grimes (475 6020DC8 – eight discs). Buy from Amazon
Having shown us the grim and nasty side of Aldeburgh life at the beginning of the 19th century in Peter Grimes, Britten had fun with its parochial aspects at the end of the century in his comic opera Albert Herring, a tale of a mother-dominated shop assistant elected May King because of his virtue, and who is slipped a laced drink at his crowning and goes off for a night on the tiles, after which he asserts himself. For some tastes, it’s proved too parochial; some who otherwise admire the composer are repelled by its self-regarding whimsicality. The possible cure for these people is to listen to Britten’s own recording, here marvellously transferred to CD and showing again what a genius the producer John Culshaw was. Britten finds all the humour in the piece, but he gives it a cutting edge and is totally successful in conveying the proximity of comedy to tragedy in the remarkable ensemble where Albert is thought to have been killed. With the English Chamber Orchestra on peak form, all kinds of Bergian echoes in the score are revealed and some, too, of Verdi’s Falstaff (Act 3). There’s also Peter Pears’s brilliant performance as Albert, a genuine piece of perceptive singing-acting. The cast is well nigh ideal. If only Britten had written more comic operas.