There are several contenders for the title of "greatest recording of a major opera: the TOSCA starring Callas and Gobbi, and the all star Guilini recording of DON GIOVANNI; Sir Georg Solti's RING cycle. I have a new contender for the title: This recording of ALBERT HERRING. Not because this is one of the greatest operas ever written; Britten was no Mozart, Strauss or Puccini. It's not even the greatest Opera Britten ever wrote: I rank it below PETER GRIMES. But the Recording has so many strong points and virtually no defects that to ignore it on any list of the greatest opera recordings would be a sin.
The first of many advantages is that this recording has the Composer at the podium. Britten is able to put every subtle emotion and nuance in the score at the listener's disposal. His direction of the singers and the 14 players of the English Chamber Orchestra is a lesson in operatic conducting. Listen to Albert's Drunk Scene through hi-fi headphones or with a good stereo system: you will hear everything the score could and should ever be.
Witch brings me to Albert Himself: Peter Pears. He was in his sixties by the time of this recording, but his voice is in the same glorious shape it was in when he was 30. He paints a picture in words and music of Albert's yearning, shyness and desperation to cut his apron strings. I once again turn to the Drunk scene: he seems genuinely Jovial, confused, and lovesick in the first half, before Nancy and Sid's interruption. Then, at the line "God helps those who help themselves", all the passion, anger and frustration of the character come boiling out in one intense and beautiful moment. The part was of course written for him, and he vocalizes beautifully, but the insight and passion he brings to the performance is unmatched by anyone.
He is surrounded by a supporting cast who are likewise exemplary. Sid and Nancy, Joseph Ward and Catherine Wilson, are wonderful: Wilson brings a sweet, smooth mezzo to the role, painting a perfect aural picture of the young, complicated free sprit Nancy is. Her regret in Act three at her actions is near heartbreaking, and her love duets with Ward are charming. Ward has a youthful-sounding, powerful baritone that is perfect for the impulsive young man. From an interpretive standpoint he is fine: suggesting just enough of thought behind his acts to make him a complicated character. Shelia Rex's Mum works well with what little is given to her: a fussy, overbearing characterization.
Sylvia Fisher is past her vocal prime here. Several high notes are squally and she is sometimes off-pitch. But there is no doubt of who she is: a Dragon lady aristocrat of Wagnerian proportions. Johanna Peters is genuinely funny as her harassed housekeeper and the rest of the village elders are hysterical and gloriously sung. We have April Cantelo's Simpering, befuddled Miss Wordsworth and the Vicar of John Noble, noble and robust almost to the point of parody. Edgar Evans' Mayor is less distinguished but actually funny in act two. Best of all, we have the Budd of the ever-amazing Owen Brannigan: a simple, amiable fellow, but by no means stupid. He shines in the third act: his annoyance with Lady Billows and the rest is very funny, and he actually seems amused by Albert's recounting of his night out. You can almost see the old boy holding back a laugh. The three children are also strong.
One thing that amazes me in this recording is the sense of atmosphere given by the recording engineers. There are small touches, barely noticeable, that give this the feel of a live performance, or even better real happenings. From the scribble of Florence's pen in the opening moments to the whiz of the orange wreath being thrown out in the opera's closing bars, to door slams, gas hisses and footsteps in between, this is like listening to a live performance with your eyes closed. You can even hear Harry when he whispers to be excused by Miss Wordsworth! I never find this intrusive, but others may, so I'm just warning you.
In closing, it is impossible for any other cast, orchestra and composer to reach this level of understanding with the work. Certain individual elements or moments may be bettered (Felicity Palmer is a hysterical Florence on another recording) but the sheer joy, humor and even drama of the set will never be bettered. Opera is all about emotion, and this recording captures every emotion ALBERT HERRING is about.