Britten Albert Herring
Any performance of Britten’s chamber comedy of 1948 renews wonder at its mastery of fluent, imperceptible through-composition, unerring delineation of character, and sheer genius in taking the best of the past and moulding it into a new and illuminating style of its own. It survives so successfully on disc by virtue of the way it creates, by vocal means alone, such individual characters. That makes it a gift for British singers to deploy all their skills, as each recording, including this one, exemplifies, not to forget the splendid video version from Glyndebourne, conducted by Haitink (on Castle Vision), which will I hope soon find its way onto DVD.
Hickox’s enthusiastic advocacy is a splendid addition to his expanding survey on disc of Britten’s stage works. He enters into the spirit of the piece as successfully as Britten himself and Steuart Bedford, the latter in a Collins Classics set (4/97 – nla) which Naxos are to reissue next month. Both the verve and sentiment of the piece are amply catered for and the playing of the City of London Sinfonia soloists is faultless. My only reservations, as has been the case in his other readings of the genre, is his predilection for slowish tempi, notably in the long alto flute and bass clarinet passage before the second scene of Act 2 and in the threnody, both slower than the composer’s own speeds. Overall, Hickox takes some 15 minutes longer than does Britten, and nearly as much more than Bedford who, by and large, conducts a crisper but just as sensitive an interpretation.
When the late, lamented Michael Oliver reviewed the Bedford set six years ago, he suggested that, when a new one came along, we would be comparing a new cast unfavourably with Bedford’s as some have compared Bedford’s unfavourably with Britten’s. In the event, I don’t think any version can claim the best singers all round. Where Albert himself is concerned, Pears now sounds too gentlemanly by half, even mannered in his diction. Between James Gilchrist here and Christopher Gillett for Bedford, there is little to choose. Gillett has the more pleasing tone, Gilchrist – marginally – offers more character. Nancy and Sid are admirably alive and winning in both casts. Among the Loxford worthies (or horrors, according to your taste), Stephen Richardson and Robert Lloyd (Bedford), in slightly different ways, catch the no-nonsense simplicity of Budd, Tear is a bit too self-conscious as the mayor compared with the simpler, more lucid Stuart Kale. Both Alan Opie (a memorable Sid on the video set) and Peter Savidge ideally catch the pomposity of the Vicar.
As regards the women, Bedford scores. Felicity Palmer is a more positive busybody than Sally Burgess, good as she is. Susan Gritton is far more successful than Rebecca Evans at catching Miss Wordsworth’s dottiness. Above all, Josephine Barstow offers a more commanding battle-axe of a Lady Billows than Susan Bullock, who becomes edgy on high and is the worst sufferer at someone’s decision to make the worthies sing ‘refained’ Os. On Britten’s version, Sylvia Fisher, with her Wagnerian resources, is the most impressive Lady Billows of all. That set also finds producer John Culshaw wishing to simulate a stage performance, which I find unconvincing. Recording-wise, the immediacy of sound on the Collins version is to be preferred to the wider perspective on the Chandos, though others may differ.
At the moment, the Hickox can stand as a very pleasurable recommendation, enjoyably enacted on all sides, but when the Bedford returns at a cheap price it ought to carry the day.