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.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com