Britten: Billy Budd

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Billy Budd
PERFORMER: Philip Langridge, Simon Keenlyside, John Tomlinson, Alan Opie, Matthew Best; Tiffin Boys Choir, LSO & Chorus/Richard Hickox
First reflections suggest little need for a new recording of Billy Budd. Britten’s own 1961 studio account of the definitive two-act version (Decca) continues to weather well the storms of time, while the belated release in 1993 of its original four-act incarnation (VAI), vividly caught live at the premiere in 1951, provides a fine memorial to its vintage cast, despite the dated sound. And although widely admired as an indefatigable proselytiser for neglected British music, the conductor here, Richard Hickox, for me at least, has often proved a less dynamic and searching interpreter than his reputation promises.


So I’m pleased to report that on this occasion Hickox is found captaining a tight ship, justifying in full the hyperbole which still seems to attend this composer. The economy of Britten’s musical language may provoke accusations of parsimony in undernourished, routine performances, but when played, as here, with such incomparable polish by all concerned, and a proper respect for dynamics, balance and detail, Billy Budd emerges as generously hearted as 19th-century verismo, as intimate as Lieder and as dramatically impregnated as Wagner.


Vocally, too, this is a Budd to treasure, with a trio of principals quite the equal of Britten’s, and a supporting crew (chorus included) unanimously adept in marrying singing line to crisp verbal enunciation. Philip Langridge’s plangently lyrical Vere, involving by its very understatement, provides an ideal counterpole to the suavely malevolent Claggart of John Tomlinson; while Simon Keenlyside, though not eschewing the vocal munificence of his illustrious predecessors, clears a distinctive interpretative path through Billy’s vertiginously ambiguous psyche. Bathed in the resplendent sound of the Chandos engineers, this Billy Budd sets a new standard in Britten interpretation.