This new recording of Death in Venice is not so much a rival as complementary to the original Decca discs that have had the field to themselves for nearly 30 years now. The virtues of each are different and both more than merit a place on the shelves.
The huge main role of von Aschenbach was, of course, originally written as Britten's last big gift to his lifetime lover and inspiration, Peter Pears. The part fits him like the proverbial glove: it feeds off and shows off all his strengths as a singer whether in recitative or arioso passages. There's that distinctive, slightly croony sound near the top of his range, his ability to sing through and round the passagio with no hint of a join, the variations of colour he can bring to the middle of his voice and so on. Britten understood them all intimately and exploited them as never before in this opera. And, in the Decca recording, Pears delivers the goods immaculately and movingly. Maybe that's why it's taken so long for a second recording to appear.
But Philip Langridge doesn't attempt to imitate Pears. The voice is different and he makes the character very different, very much his own. It's a bit like the contrast between Pears and Vickers in Grimes. This von Aschenbach is much more of a man of action, involved in the world and responsive to it. His fight with writer's block is a real one. One suspects his observations of the hotel guests may just titillate a little creativity back into action. His discovery that 'Eros is in the Word' comes as something of a shock to him, the realisation that 'I love you' even more so, and the nightmare battle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian sides of his nature is truly frightening - for him and for us. His descent into the abyss, from the hysterical heights of the barber's shop through to the death on the beach, is really harrowing. Pears may sing more beautifully in the exquisite Phaedrus aria, but Langridge's subtle colouring of the voice and use of the text make it a heart-breaking experience. More than anyone else who has taken the role since Pears, Langridge offers a real alternative view.
Alan Opie, in the multiple baritone roles, is also complementary to the original, John Shirley-Quirk. Shirley-Quirk excels in those parts that demand more purely beautiful singing - the Traveller, the Gondolier, the Hotel Manager. Opie, on the other hand, is a master at the eccentrics, the camp and the outrageous - the Fop, the Barber and the Leader of the Strolling Players. Honours even, then. And so, too, between Michael Chance and James Bowman as the austere counter-tenor Apollo. Both sing his utterances with strength and beauty of tone.
Where Hickox really scores, though, is in the large part played by the chorus in this opera. He secures from the BBC Singers much tighter, more focused, better intonated choral singing that you'll find on the original Decca discs. The chorus here seem almost like another protagonist, so strong is their contribution. Even the 'Games of the Sun' in this performance don't seem to overstay their welcome as they do in most performances - indeed seem a candidate for extraction like the Choral Dances from Gloriana. And all the soloists taken from the BBC Singers for the multitude of smaller parts match or outshine their Decca rivals.
By now, Hickox's credentials as a Britten conductor are well proven. Bedford on Decca, of course, had the composer's own advice throughout his sessions (Britten was by then too ill to conduct himself). Hickox does not slavishly follow that lead: he has his own point of view. In a recording well up to Chandos's usual high standards, he secures gorgeous sounds and spring from the strings and woodwind in the 'View' motif, a magical rocking rhythm for the many barcarolles in the gondolas and real menace from the plague-ridden tuba which insinuates its presence more and more into the orchestral fabric of the opera.
All in all, a fascinating alternative view of Britten's last opera. And in great modern sound.