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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes (1945)
Alan Oke (tenor) - Peter Grimes
Giselle Allen (soprano) - Ellen Orford
David Kempster (baritone) - Balstrode
Gaynor Keeble (alto) - Auntie
Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford (sopranos) - Nieces
Robert Murray (tenor) - Bob Boles
Henry Waddington (bass) - Swallow
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo) - Mrs Sedley
Christopher Gillet (tenor) - Rev. Horace Adams
Charles Rice (baritone) - Ned Keene
Stephen Richardson (bass) - Hobson
The Chorus of Opera North with the Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Britten-Pears Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
rec. live, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 7, 9 June 2013 (66th Aldeburgh Festival)
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD348 [73:55 + 64:01]

One of the highlights of the Britten Centenary year in 2013 has been Tim Albery’s staging of Peter Grimes on the very beach at Aldeburgh where the opera was set. Reviews of that performance have been adulatory, and those of us who didn’t make it will soon have a chance to see it for ourselves when the film of the production arrives in cinemas. Before taking to the beach, however, the same cast performed the score in concert, and it is that performance, captured over two nights, that we receive here. Let me say from the outset that it is superb, able to look in the eye any Grimes in the catalogue and not to suffer from the comparison.
The first glory of the set is the quality of the recorded sound, captured in the incomparable acoustic of the Snape Maltings. Every instrumental voice comes out brilliantly, from the deep brass in the Dawn interlude through to the haunting viola solo in the Passacaglia. The score is played brilliantly by the Britten-Pears Orchestra, clearly rising to the thrill of the occasion, and the whole thing is directed with security and laser-like vision by Steuart Bedford, that most experienced of Britten conductors. Listen to them tear through the Storm interlude, every section giving it their all from the wailing strings to the dark winds and a percussion section that never stops, suddenly pulled up by the shimmering emergence of the What harbour shelters peace theme. The Passacaglia is particularly well controlled with Bedford generating screw-tightening tension, and the Moonlight interlude is full of poignant suggestion.
The singing cast is top notch, too. Grimes is such a fiendish role to sing because he is so contradictory, and interpretations have ranged from Pears’ visionary poet through to Vickers’ rough brute. He’s an outsider; that’s intrinsic to Britten’s understanding of the character. However, Alan Oke’s achievement is to humanise Grimes and to bring him closer to the audience’s experience than perhaps any other singer on record. Gone are the extremes of Pears or Vickers, but they are replaced with a fully rounded portrayal of the character that is very refreshing. He is the victim of chance in the Prologue, which ends with a searingly honest duet with Ellen, and we already see him as the victim of the Borough’s suspicion in the first scene when no-one will help him to pull in his boat. Key, however, is the dialogue with Balstrode at the end of that scene where Oke spells out Grimes’ plans in a surprisingly believable way - does anyone really think that Jon Vickers will ever settle down with Ellen? - and we sympathise with his re-telling of the scene of the apprentice’s death. Then What harbour shelters peace lifts the music up to a whole new plane of transcendence, as if he (and, indeed, we) can feel his dream within palpable reach. It’s incredibly powerful, and it makes Grimes’ eventual fate all the more tragic. Oke’s Grimes is a victim of circumstances and of his own character flaws; not a wholly innocent one, certainly, but a man for whom things could have worked out very differently. In this sense, the scene where he strikes Ellen is very much the turning point of the action, the point of no return where his fate seems to be sealed: “God have mercy upon me!” sounds like a wail from the soul. His fate remains tragic, though: he sounds haunted in the pub scene when he recalls the death of the first apprentice and his recollections of that event temper the savagery of the hut scene. His account of the final mad scene is one of the finest I’ve heard because it recalls how humane the voice was earlier in the opera and so shows us how far this character has fallen. Oke’s is an interpretation for the ages.
Giselle Allen, who was a thrilling Ellen when I saw Opera North’s astounding production in Newcastle, makes every bit as much of the role here. She keeps a touch of the histrionics in her aria, Let her among you without fault, and rightly so as she is using it to reprimand the villagers for their moral superiority. She is, touchingly, full of hope in the opening scene of Act 2 when she imagines her new start with Peter, but this evaporates when she notices the tear in the apprentice’s coat and her cries of “Hush, Peter” seem devoid of hope. Her embroidery aria is the culmination of this, encompassing so many broken dreams but never in a mawkish or indulgent manner, and the beauty of her voice is helped by her excellent acting ability. David Kempster’s homely voice makes Balstrode approachable and humane, the closest thing to an intermediary that we will find in the piece. His dialogue with Grimes at the end of the storm scene is sympathetic, showing clearly that he is on Grimes’ side, and this makes his injunction to Grimes to commit suicide all the more heartbreaking, even more so because of the matter-of-fact tone in which he delivers it.
The smaller parts are all cast from strength too, so that the crowd scenes all bristle with colour. Gaynor Keeble is a formidable force as Auntie, coming into her own in the pub scene where she clearly rules the roost. Catherine Wyn-Rogers draws laughs from the audience as a paranoid Mrs Sedley, though she sounds genuinely ominous in the first scene of Act 3. Robert Murray’s slightly nasal voice sounds appropriately nasty as Bob Boles, though Charles Rice is slightly anonymous as Ned Keene. Henry Waddington is a bluff, vigorous Swallow in the mode of Owen Brannigan.
Perhaps even more important is the role of the chorus, the backbone of which is fittingly provided by Opera North, whose Peter Grimes was one of the most powerful nights I’ve ever had in the theatre. They chant anonymously (but still dangerously) from the sidelines in the opening inquest scene and sing the dawn music with great beauty but also a sense of hollowness. They are hair-raising in the climaxes, such as the arrival of the storm at the end of the first scene, or the blood-curdling unison that sees out the end of Act 1. In Act 2 the speed with which they close in, first on Ellen and then on Grimes, is chilling and this culminates in a thunderous gathering of the mob in Act 3. It’s a chilling reminder of how dangerous this crowd can be, yet how indifferent they are in the final analysis.
All told, then, this is an outstanding addition to the Peter Grimes discography, worthy to set alongside the finest in the catalogue from Davis, Hickox and, most authoritatively, from Britten himself. Everyone involved rises to the special nature of the occasion and gives of their very best. This is a set to invest in with confidence, and to continue enjoying long after the Britten centenary has passed. The full libretto (in English only) is included in the booklet, together with an essay by Colin Matthews and brief artist biographies. The audience, by the way, is extremely well behaved, so don’t be put off that it’s a live recording.
Simon Thompson

Britten review index & discography: Peter Grimes