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Britten, Benjamin: Billy Budd (CD) Chandos 2000

Britten: Billy Budd (CD)


“…this Billy Budd sets a new standard in Britten interpretation” BBC Music Magazine

Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Richard Hickox
Billy Budd – Simon Keenlyside
Captain Vere – Philip Langridge
Claggart – JohnTomlinson
Mr Redburn – Alan Opie
Mr Flint – Matthew Best
Mr Ratcliffe – Alen Ewing
Red Whiskers – Francis Egerton
Donald – Quentin Hayes
Dansker – Clive Bayley
Novice – Mark Padmore
Squeek – Richard Coxon
Bosun – Timothy DuFore
First Mate – Christopher Keyte
Second Mate – Richard Whitehouse
Maintop – Daniel Norman
Novice’s Friend; Arthur Jones – Roderick Williams
Cabin Boy – Alex Johnston
Tiffin Boys’ School Choir
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Label: Chandos
Code: CHAN9826
Released: April 24, 2000
Recorded: Blackheath Halls, London, 6-10 December 1999
Number of discs: 3

Click below to listen to extracts from this recording:

Your name…?”

What’s those whistles…?”

Starry Vere…”

I’ll give no offence…”

What the critics say

Alan Blyth for Gramophone, June 2000

Outstanding principals, excellent supporting parts and super Chandos sound amply compensate for a reading which lacks the creative tension Britten himself achieved. Britten’s score is so often praised that we tend to neglect the distinction of Forster and Crozier’s libretto. That thought came into my mind when listening to this new set, largely because its three principals sing the text with such unerring conviction. Keenlyside and Langridge deserve special mention in that regard, 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 so much eloquent phrasing, the epitome of English singing at its very best. They and Tomlinson took part in the much-praised Barbican concert that preceded this recording; Langridge and Tomlinson, a classic Claggart, were cast in their roles in the most convincing staged performance of the work I have ever seen, some 10 years ago at Scottish Opera.

Keenlyside is a Billy to set beside Theodor Uppman, the role’s creator (VAI) and Thomas Allen on the wonderful ENO video, with 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, and Keenlyside’s singing could hardly be more firm and lyrical. Langridge, who also features on the ENO version, 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. These three surpass all but Uppman, Peter Pears and Frederick Dalberg at the original production in 1951 (VAl), though the Decca London trio run them close. Billy Budd undoubtedly inspires great performance.

In supporting roles there is 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. I had some reservations about Matthew Best’s (appropriately powerful) Sailing Master, Mr Flint: his large, gritty bass-baritone records uneasily.

Hickox conducts with all his old zest for marshalling large forces and searching out every cranny of this highly evocative score, and the London Symphony forces respond with real virtuosity, all recorded with Chandos’s skill for catching the large-in-scale while not overlooking pertinent detail. My reservations concern matters of tempo, movement and theatricality. 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, especially in the account taken from the 1951 premiere on VAI.

The Nagano set, like the early Britten, employs the original four-act version. So the Chandos comes into most direct competition with the Decca. The latter still sounds well, though inevitably it hasn’t the aural range of the new recording. Yet nobody will ever quite catch the creative tension the composer brings to his own work (although David Atherton comes close to that on the video version). For all that, I would not like to do without that trio of imaginative singers on this new set, and most newcomers will be satisfied with its appreciable achievement.

Andrew Clements for The Guardian, August 31, 2001

Britten’s own series of recordings for Decca, which began in 1957 with Peter Grimes, were unrivalled in his lifetime, and it is only in the past 10 years that a new generation of interpreters has begun to explore these works from a different perspective. Britten conducted his fifth full-length opera, Billy Budd, in the studio in 1967, with Peter Glossop in the title role, Peter Pears as Captain Vere and Michael Langdon as Claggart heading the all-male cast. In its control of dramatic tension, the character of the orchestral playing (by the London Symphony Orchestra), and the way in which Britten mediates so eloquently between the public and the private scenes, it remains unsurpassed.

Richard Hickox’s 1999 account with the LSO does not have Britten’s acuity in its pacing, but it surpasses it in its casting. Simon Keenlyside’s Budd is an extraordinary achievement, noble and moving, Philip Langridge conveys every particle of Vere’s anguish, and John Tomlinson’s personification of Claggart’s implacable evil is terrifying. For those three performances and for the richly detailed texture of the sound, it deserves just to be recommended above the Decca set.

Both these recordings use the revised two-act version of Billy Budd, which Britten fashioned after the premiere of the opera in 1951, and which became the standard edition. But in 1997 Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra went back to the original four-act version of the work for a series of concert performances in Manchester that subsequently found their way onto CD for Erato.

The differences between the two scores are fascinating. The four-act structure includes one extra scene in which Captain Vere addresses the crew of his ship, HMS Indomitable, and some extra material in the confrontations between the Captain and Claggart. Thomas Hampson is Billy, with Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Vere.

Nagano’s conducting is not quite, I think, a match musically either for Hickox’s or for the composer’s, but it still presents a highly revealing gloss on what is arguably the most powerful and raw-edged work in Britten’s operatic output.

Jon  Alan Conrad for Opera News, 2000

“Simon Keenlyside sings the title role solidly, beautifully in fact, with a balanced poise worthy of comparison with the role’s creator, Theodor Uppman. (Uppman’s Covent Garden performance is available on VAI 1034). But Billy needs to bowl us over with a unique personal magnetism, just as he does with those he meets on the Indomitable; and Keenlyside remains just a source of handsome sound.”

Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com


This is the first complete recording of the revised, two-act version of Billy Budd to appear since the one led by the composer appeared in 1968. A previously un-released “private” recording of the four-act version with the original cast showed up in 1994 and shed great light on Britten’s growth and approach to drama, and just two years back, Kent Nagano led the same version with Thomas Hampson in the title role on Erato. This present recording is a stunning achievement and pushes all of the others out of the first place slot.

Richard Hickox is absolutely sympathetic to the opera and leads with great understanding for the unfolding tragedy. His tempos are a bit slower throughout than Britten’s and this, along with his cast’s diction and Chandos’ fine ability to record the English language, means that almost every word is discernible, even in the huge, aborted battle scene in Act Two and the heavily orchestrated Billy/Dansker duet that ends Act One. Hickox gets the sadness of the lone saxophone just right after the flogging in Act One, captures the nervous excitement of the almost-battle scene, and gives us Billy’s good-natured enthusiasm as distinctly as he underscores Claggart’s evil with its low, menacing accompaniment.

And his singers are first rate. Simon Keenlyside becomes the Billy for the ages: the voice is beautiful, his involvement is complete, and his outpourings of love and desperation ring sincere. Philip Langridge’s Vere is in a class with Peter Pears’ but his voice is richer and more easily produced. It’s a beautiful, sad performance. In John Tomlinson’s portrayal of Claggart there is more than just villainy–the sadism and unctuousness that sometimes are missing are truly apparent here–and it’s very ugly indeed. Alan Opie and Matthew Best are stalwart and clear-headed as Redburn and Flint, respectively, and in Mark Padmore and Richard Coxon we discover how crucial the roles of the Novice and Squeak actually are. Clive Bailey’s Dansker is colorful and compassionate, and the remainder of the cast–including the adult and children’s choruses–is superlative. Needless to say, the LSO plays brilliantly. This Billy Budd is the desert island pick–two acts or four.

BBC Music Magazine

Performance: *****
Sound: *****

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.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

DK January 28, 2013 at 11:01 pm

I listened last night to the Radio 3 broadcast of the ENO 2012 Billy Budd, and while I thought it was a very fine production, the singing of “Billy in the Darbies” and the final “it is enough” doesn’t come close to heartbreak of the Chandos recording.

Opera News announced their lucky winner and it wasn’t me. 🙁 I won’t be buying a ticket, not at $850 a head to attend.

Sue January 28, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Most satisfying to hear that this recording of Billy Budd is still so highly prized, and not surprising with such wonderful performances from all concerned. Such a pleasure to hear Simon’s voice broadcast on Radio 3 on both Saturday and today.
And how wonderful that he will be honoured in the Opera News Awards in New York in April 2013 – richly deserved

DK January 27, 2013 at 8:02 pm

On yesterday’s CD review as part of the Britten 100 centenary programmes, this was the top recommendation of recordings of “Billy Budd” on CD. Having heard the title role sung by other baritones, I must agree!

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