BRITTEN Billy Budd & Songs
Decca's transfers to CD of Britten's recordings of his own works gather pace and now reach what one is often tempted to call the greatest of his operas, although perhaps The Turn of the Screw claims that accolade. 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 protagonists 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. His use of stereo effects and his inspired balancing of voices and orchestra ensure that listeners at home feel that they are not merely observers of but participators in events aboard Indomitable in 1797. There have been several striking and brilliant stage productions of this opera in recent years, two having been built around Thomas Allen's outstanding performance of the title-role, and a new recording ought to be made, no great opera should exist in only one recorded version. But having said that, 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. His conducting of the choral scenes, particularly when the crew are heard singing below decks while Captain Vere and his officers are talking in his cabin, is profoundly satisfying and moving. Most of all, he focuses with absolute 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 instead a rough honesty in keeping with Melville's conception of the character. Nor does one feel any particular homo-eroticism about his relationship with Michael Langdon's black-voiced Claggart: it is 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 one can apply the adjective 'classic' to this recording with a clear consclence.
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. One can understand why neither has achieved the popularity of the Serenade and the Hardy settings—not because the music is in any way inferior, but because the dark mood is unrelieved. They make ideal complements to