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Virgin Classics 19039
28 Sep 2011

Billy Budd at the Barbican

Among recent recordings of Britten’s opera Billy Budd, the recent release conducted by Daniel Harding has much to offer in terms of performance quality, interpretation, and also the quality of recording.

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd, Op. 50

Nathan Gunn: Billy Budd; Ian Bostridge: Edward Vere; Jonathan Lemalu: Mr. Flint; Gidon Saks: John Claggart; Daniel Teadt: Donald; Neal Davies: Mr. Redburn; Andrew Kennedy: The Novice; Matthew Best: Dansker; Matthew Rose: Mr. Ratcliffe. London Symphony Chorus. London Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Daniel Harding.

Virgin Classics 19039 [3CDs]

$29.99  Click to buy

Recorded live at the Barbican, London, between 5 and 9 December 2007, this performance involves a fine cast, led by Nathan Gunn as the title character and Ian Bostridge as Edward Vere, who stand out for their fine depictions of their characters in this work. Gunn has performed the role in various houses and brings to this recording the details of the character that both draw on his experience and also benefit from the clear direction Harding brings to this performance. The same can be said of Bostridge in the pivotal role of Captain Vere, whose memory of the story of Billy Budd serves as the frame for this opera, a Christ story by Herman Melville, which received dramatic shape in the libretto by Eric Crozier and E. M. Forster that serves as the basis for this intriguing score by Britten.

This particular recording of Billy Budd offers an evenly solid cast, in which the interplay between the characters emerges clearly. The solid delivery of the text through the sung voices conveys well the vocalizing Britten employed, such that the words come off clearly and, more importantly, the sense of the lines. Phrasing works well to allow the music to fit the libretto, such that the transition from Vere’s opening monologue and the scene that follows it (“Pull my bantams!” are equally clear. This transparent presentation of the score occurs throughout the recording, such that the culminating scene with Billy Budd in act 2, scene 3 is readily accessible, and the title character’s number “And farewell to ye, old Rights of Man!” is presented with the musical style and dramatic weight it deserves.

Beyond the performances of these two main figures, the other characters are well sung by fine performers. Gidon Saks offers a solid Claggart who conveys the character’s determination well, with Jonathan Lemalu giving good voice in his role as Mr. Flint, with these and the other principals supporting the drama well. They interact in the libretto with the characters Budd and Vere, who benefit from the strong performances of these singers. This also applies to the men of the London Symphony Chorus, who give voice to the crew of the ship throughout the opera, especially the choral music in the third scene of the first act and also the first scene of the second. The balanced, resonant sound is effective, with the rich choral textures serving as a contrast to the extended passages for solo voices.

That stated, the last part of act two is effective for various reasons, with the solid performances by Gunn and Bostridge standing out for their memorable portrayal of the roles of Budd and Vere. With Harding’s leadership, the resulting drama is borne out well in the pacing of the score as the work comes to its conclusion. The scenes unfold with appropriate musical sense and a thoughtful sense of phrasing, so that the text of the well-written libretto is always clear and prominent. This memorable reading is powerful in the intensity that emerges well in this live recording of Britten’s score, with the epilogue in Vere’s voice fitting appropriately onto the entire, impressive enterprise. Among the various recordings of Billy Budd currently available, it is good to have this reading, which brings a certain dynamic quality to the work.

The recording itself is spaciously recorded and issued on three discs, with a full libretto, along with a translation into French. The banding is useful in allowing for a sensible division of the work into the various parts of each scene, so that it finding specific passages is easy to do. More than that, the sound is uniformly clear and resonant, conveying well the live performances on which this release is based.

James L. Zychowicz

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