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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
Peter Grimes, Op.33 (1945)
Glenn Winslade – Peter Grimes
Janice Watson – Ellen Orford
Anthony Michaels-Moore – Captain Balstrode
Jill Grove – Auntie
Catherine Wyn-Rogers – Mrs Sedley
Nathan Gunn – Ned Keene
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Colin Davis
Recorded live at the Barbican 10-12 January 2004.
budget price,
LSO LIVE LSO0054 [55’06 + 48’32 + 39’05]

This is Sir Colin Davis’s second recording of Peter Grimes; his third if you include a filmed performance from Covent Garden. It does not fully supplant either earlier version, at least in terms of the singing. Come to the orchestral contribution, however, and this is quite easily the best-played Grimes on disc. Listening again to the interludes, and the way Davis handles them, is an often overwhelming experience, even if, in the concert hall, the effect was still more electrifying. How often does one hear the Second Interlude (track 9, disc 1) played with such venom? The playing is often magnificent, sumptuous and perilously close to perfection – as the LSO rip through the score with a cluster of sound Britten would have found astonishing. Those deeply burnished strings (not always captured to such glowing effect on this recording) bring a hue of darkness to the most transparent moments (the sixth Interlude, for example (track 5, disc 3), partly a depiction of Grimes’ growing madness, and here quite sinister in its coloration). In the third Interlude their playing is scorching, intense and quicksilver. And, how often after the storm Interlude does a listener then hear the storm recalled through the orchestra when the scene shifts to the action inside The Boar? In this performance it is the epi-centre of the action until the first act’s closing pages. This makes for a perfectly satisfactory outcome for this reviewer but I can see others might quibble with its impact being so divisive to events happening elsewhere. Davis’s energy throughout is astonishing and this is replicated in the playing.

One of the important principles surrounding Peter Grimes, and often forgotten, is that Britten wrote the score with certain voices in mind. This has sometimes created problems in subsequent performances of the work (the composer famously loathed Jon Vickers as Grimes, for example). But the effect can sometimes be quite radical; Vickers was an extraordinary vocal and physical presence who shunted the opera into new, and different, psychological territory. Imogen Holst spoke of Peter Pears’ Grimes as "growing in stature until he was bearing the burden of all those other outcasts…". She was talking only of Act III; with Vickers this was a constant, unshifting characterization throughout the opera.

Being neither a mirror of Britten nor of his younger self, Davis falls between a rock and a hard place in his casting choices. Nevertheless, two moments shine out as being amongst the finest I have heard in any performance of this opera. The first is Grimes’ "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" aria (track 12, disc 1) sung with exceptional imagination and beauty of tone by Glenn Winslade. The complete antithesis of Vickers here, he came closer to recalling the mysteries of human grief, and the subliminal angst of vulnerability, than any other interpreter of the role in my experience. The middle register of his voice conveys just the right degree of plangency making his Grimes a more touching anti-hero than is usually the case. Dynamics are remarkable. Perhaps for this very reason, his Act III monologue – disjointed utterances, unfathomable in their sense – seemed less jagged than it should. This Grimes seems less mad, less raving and more a man who has already come to terms with his fate than is commonly perceived. But his performance – despite being so beautifully sung in places – is really understated; a depiction of a fisherman who meekly accepts his fate.

The second moment of greatness is the wonderful Quartet (track 6, disc 2) before the Passacaglia. Ellen, Auntie and her two nieces reflect on women’s relationships with men and it is stunningly done. Janice Watson – as Ellen – sings with purity of expression and Jill Groves – in a moving portrayal of Auntie – brings great wisdom to her singing. Sally Matthews and Alison Buchanan as the nieces are flirty, but uncommonly close in timbre. All four shine throughout the performance – a radical departure that had as much to do with them mirroring the glowing orchestral backdrop as it did Davis’soverall view of this opera as a warmer, more humane animal than it used to be seen as.

Not that this prevents Catherine Wyn-Rogers seizing every opportunity she is given to make her Mrs Sedley – odiously characterized – the upholder of intolerance and prejudice. Best of the rest, are Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Balstrode – nowhere better than in his scene with Ellen at the close of the opera – and Jonathan Lemalu’s Hobson – a small part, but memorably sung.

The LSO Chorus take on the role of the Borough’s townspeople with an innate feeling for the tragedy that is about to unfold. The contrast between the opening chorus – deliberately conceived by Britten to add contrast to the drabness of the community against the coloration of the setting – and the closing chorus, with rampant shouts of "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!" are handled superbly. At fortissimo, their vocalisation can seem congested, but for the most part they bray and cajole their way admirably through Britten’s occasionally dense scoring.

There is nothing especially radical about Sir Colin Davis’s grasp of the score. If anything he seems actually to make Britten’s opera rather "of its time". It impresses on the surface without really trying to scrape beneath it. Rather than the deep wounds that can make Grimes a powerfully relevant opera – even sixty years after it was written – this seems to be a performance that sees nothing contemporary in it at all. On that level, it is disappointing and uncomfortable – but as a showpiece for the London Symphony Orchestra it proves, once again, that they are peerless.

If this performance doesn’t supplant Britten’s own (recently released on Decca) or Richard Hickox’s (with a superb Philip Langridge in the eponymous role) on Chandos it sits beside them as a worthy equal. No one should miss Vickers as Grimes – as powerful a performance as his Tristan was, but perhaps not to be repeated. LSO Live have put this performance on three discs – an act on each one – but given the set is available at bargain price – with a libretto – it is well worth the price.

Marc Bridle

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