The Gramophone Choice
Coupled with The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op 35*. Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74**
Peter Glossop bar Billy Budd *Peter Pears ten Captain Vere Michael Langdon bass John Claggart John Shirley-Quirk bar Mr Redburn Bryan Drake bar Mr Flint David Kelly bass Mr Ratcliffe Gregory Dempsey ten Red Whiskers David Bowman bar Donald Owen Brannigan bass Dansker Robert Tear ten Novice Robert Bowman ten Squeak Delme Bryn-Jones bar Bosun Eric Garrett bar First Mate Nigel Rogers ten Maintop Benjamin Luxon bar Novice’s Friend Geoffrey Coleby bar Arthur Jones **Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten pf
Decca London 417 428-2LH3 (3h 25‘ · ADD · N/T) Recorded 1961. Buy from Amazon
Also available in ‘The Complete Britten Operas, Vol 1’, also containing Albert Herring, Owen Wingrave and Peter Grimes (475 6020DC8 – eight discs). Buy from Amazon
Billy Budd is remarkable in having been composed for male voices, yet not once is there any lack of colour or variety. Britten marvellously supports the tenor, baritone and bass voices with extraordinary flair in the use of brass and woodwind. This was the last operatic recording John Culshaw produced for Decca and he again showed himself unsurpassed at creating a theatrical atmosphere in the studio. It must also be said that both technically and interpretatively this Britten/Culshaw collaboration represents the touchstone for any that follows it, particularly in the matter of Britten’s conducting. Where Britten is superb is in the dramatic tautness with which he unfolds the score and his unobtrusive highlighting of such poignant detail as the use of the saxophone after the flogging. But most of all, he focuses with total clarity on the intimate human drama against the background of life aboard the ship.
And what a cast he had, headed by Peter Pears as Vere, conveying a natural authoritarianism which makes his unwilling but dutiful role as ‘the messenger of death’ more understandable, if no more agreeable. Peter Glossop’s Billy Budd is a virile performance, with nothing of the ‘goody-goody’ about him. Nor is there any particular homoeroticism about his relationship with Michael Langdon’s black-voiced Claggart: it’s a straight conflict between good and evil, and all the more horrifying for its stark simplicity. Add to these principals John Shirley-Quirk, Bryan Drake and David Kelly as the officers, Owen Brannigan as Dansker and Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon in the small roles of the novice and his friend, and the adjective ‘classic’ can be applied to this recording with a clear conscience. Also on the discs are two of Britten’s most sombre song-cycles, the Donne Sonnets and the Blake Songs and Proverbs, the former with Pears, the latter with Fischer-Dieskau, and both incomparably accompanied by Britten. They make ideal complements to Billy Budd. This is without doubt a vintage set.
Simon Keenlyside bar Billy Budd Philip Langridge ten Captain Vere John Tomlinson bass John Claggart Alan Opie bar Mr Redburn Matthew Best bass-bar Mr Flint Alan Ewing bass Mr Ratcliffe Francis Egerton ten Red Whiskers Quentin Hayes bar Donald Clive Bayley bass Dansker Mark Padmore ten Novice Richard Coxon ten Squeak Timothy DuFore bar Bosun Christopher Keyte bar First Mate Richard Whitehouse bar Second Mate, Gunner’s Mate Daniel Norman ten Maintop Roderick Williams bar Novice’s Friend, Arthur Jones Alex Johnson treb Cabin Boy Tiffin Boys’ Choir; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN9826 (165' · DDD · S/T) Buy from Amazon
Britten’s score is so often praised that we tend to neglect the distinction of Forster and Crozier’s libretto, sung in this set with unerring conviction by its three principals. Keenlyside and Langridge deserve special mention for their arresting sensitivity throughout the final scenes, when they make the utterances of Billy and Vere so poetic and moving: refined tone allied to eloquent phrasing – the epitome of English singing at its very best. Keenlyside has a voice of just the right weight and an appreciation of how Billy must be at once sympathetic and manly. From first to last you realise the lad’s personal magnetism in vocal terms alone, explaining the crew’s admiration for his qualities. Langridge is the complete Vere, suggesting the man’s easy command of men, his poetic soul, his agony of mind at the awful decision placed in his hands to sacrifice Billy. At the opposite end of the human spectrum, Claggart’s dark, twisted being and his depravity of thought are ideally realised by Tomlinson, give or take one or two moments of unsteadiness when his voice comes under pressure. In supporting roles there’s also much to admire. Mark Padmore conveys all the Novice’s terror in a very immediate, tortured manner. Clive Bayley’s Dansker is full of canny wisdom. Alan Opie is a resolute Mr Redburn. Matthew Best is an appropriately powerful Mr Flint, though his large, gritty bass-baritone records uneasily.
Hickox conducts with all his old zest for marshalling large forces, searching out every cranny of the score, and the London Symphony forces respond with real virtuosity. Speeds now and again sound a shade too deliberate, and there’s not always quite that sense of an ongoing continuum you feel in both of Britten’s readings, which are by and large tauter. But the Chandos, using the revised two-act version, comes into most direct competition with Britten’s later Decca set. The latter still sounds well, though inevitably it hasn’t the aural range of the Chandos recording. Yet nobody will ever quite catch the creative tension the composer brings to his own work. For all that, the Chandos set benefits from this trio of imaginative singers, and most newcomers will be satisfied with its appreciable achievement.