Classical: In the key of sea

Billy Budd Halle, Manchester
  • @seckerson
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.