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on 20 April 2010
I debated whether this should rank 2 or 3 stars and in the end settled on 2. Some may be puzzled how I could possibly rate the Richard Burton recording of Under Milk Wood as only 2 stars? The honest answer is that I don't, I rate it 5 stars, it's this recording/remix that I think deserves only 2.
The original version was beautiful (I've only ever heard the 1963 version though many say that the 1954 version was better so I've just bought it for myself to find out). I've listened to it so many times I've lost count and every time something new sneaks out and surprises you - little nuances, wordplay, tone, you get something new on every listen, and on every listen I'm transported to another place, I can see the people, the streets, the houses, the rooms in the houses, everything - a truly magical piece of work.
This new version takes the original Richard Burton reading and melds it with a new cast and some remixing. I've nothing against that in principle; I just don't think it's been very well done. The performances of the new cast are perfectly good (I'm used to some of the old ones, so to me the new seem out of place, but I'm sure if you came to this fresh you'd find them perfectly good). So what's the problem? It's the omission of some key sounds effect and the inappropriate addition of others and some incidental music that undoes this version.
Others have mentioned the lack of the children singing and while this may seem trivial it does detract, but more importantly it's the incidental music and the addition of some special effects that do most to detract and distract. For example, for those that don't know this work, in one of the very early sequences, we are introduced to some dead people. Presumably for benefit of the unfamiliar listener or hard of thinking, these have now been mixed with a hollow ghostly echo, just to get the message across, but it doesn't, it kills the atmosphere created by Burton's voice, you don't need SFX to know he's talking about dead people, it's there to hear in his tone.
I believe this had the potential to be a great piece or work, but in reality (and rather unusually for the BBC) it falls flat. If you want a good recording of Under Milk Wood buy yourself the 1963 or 1954 versions, only buy this one if you want to judge for yourself whether you think this 2003 version is an improvement on the original, but I doubt that you will.