Classical: In the key of sea

Billy Budd Halle, Manchester

The passage in question amounts to no more than four or so minutes of music and concludes Act 1 - the original Act 1, that is, of what was Britten's four-act opera Billy Budd. Captain Vere musters his "gallant crew" to the quarter deck. "I speak to all," he says. "Veteran and novice, sailor and marine, officer and man, we share a common duty, we fight a common foe..." And the response comes back loud and clear, the sailors' voices - and that of one in particular, Able Seaman William Budd - rising to a Jolly Rogerish shout of affirmation. The critic Ernest Newman famously (and naughtily) wrote that it put him in mind of HMS Pinafore. Quite a compliment, though not, of course, intended as such. He was implying, I imagine, that it was a little too pat and pompous, jolly exciting (in the time-honoured tradition of Act 1 curtains) but functional rather than inspirational. And he had a point. It's true that this boisterous little scene lends a certain ironic symmetry to the four-act structure, contrasting long-term with the mutinous howls of derision that poleaxe Vere and his officers at the close of Act 4. But is it otherwise really such a loss?

Britten scholars Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed clearly think that it is, and occupy seven pages of the Halle programme telling us why. Oddly enough, they don't dwell on the advantages of the two-act revision, one of which strikes me as far more significant dramatically than the gain or loss of this Act 1 finale. And that's the extraordinary sequence of common chords which reach out from the drumhead court martial scene like the questions and answers that will forever be on Vere's conscience. In the four-act version, they cease abruptly with the close of Act 3. In the revision, they are a poetic segue into Billy's last dawn, linking him and "Starry Vere" for all eternity. In this rare concert performance (and recording) of the original version, Kent Nagano set down these haunting chords with all the surgical precision one has come to expect of him. Their changing colour and physiognomy was well heard, well realised. He has a keen ear, does Nagano, he tells us a great deal about the notes. But what of the reasons for them? What of the tragic import, the terrible dilemma that wells up in the decay of each chord? I don't know. Nagano doesn't tell us. He doesn't tell us a great deal.

Early in Act 1, the crew's chant "O heave! O heave away, heave!" sets our sights on a distant horizon; in its deep undulations we should see and feel the swell of a boundless ocean. But conduct it strictly in tempo, as Nagano did here, and all you'll see are barlines. Time and again, his precision seemed to inhibit spontaneity. The sounds were revealing, often beautiful - the Halle Orchestra and Choir were well prepared, they played and sang splendidly - but strangely abstract. The prelude to Act 2, scene 2, was one instance of rarefied beauty, certainly, but as the sea shanty "Blow her to Hilo", first heard in distant voices, swelled to break overwhelmingly on a golden chord of E flat major, I didn't for a moment feel the collective beating of many hearts. Even the great call to action stations in Act 3 ("This is our moment") was more about clarity than excitement. Where was the emotional immediacy?

Perhaps this remoteness was in part to do with the inevitable distancing effect, the formality, of a concert performance. Plus the fact that the voices (and Erato's recording project made an impressive cast a reality) were anyway greatly disadvantaged for being set behind the orchestra. One contributing theory for the excision of the Act 1 finale was that it was actually too heroic a sing for Peter Pears. Well, we'll have to wait for the recording to hear how Anthony Rolfe Johnson fared. From my seat in the circle, the orchestra swallowed him whole. Elsewhere, he was splendid, ideally counterbalancing Vere, the crisply efficient commander, with Vere, the visionary. We could really hear "the infinite sea" in his glacial head-voice, just as we could hear cruelty when the cavernous basso profundo of Eric Halfvarson's Claggart stooped so low as to freeze the blood. Richard Van Allan was a lovely idea for trusty old Dansker, and Gidon Saks a gauntly imposing Mr Flint. And Thomas Hampson's Billy exuded goodly charisma and an unsullied youthful fervour. So much so that when Britten's horns soared like Billy's soul into the blue beyond at the moment of his death (a wispy trail of violin harmonics and it's all over), you really felt the void.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor