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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes - opera in a prologue and three acts (1945)
Alan Oke (tenor) - Peter Grimes
Giselle Allen (soprano) - Ellen Orford
David Kempster (baritone) - Balstrode
Gaynor Keeble (mezzo) - Auntie
Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford (sopranos) - Nieces
Robert Murray (tenor) - Bob Boles
Henry Waddington (bass) - Swallow
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo) - Mrs Sedley
Christopher Gillett (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)
Includes libretto in English
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD348 [73:55 + 64:01]

These Signum CDs let you hear a historic interpretation in the making. In the three performances given during the second week of the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival Peter Grimes was staged for the first time against the backdrop of the actual setting of the opera, Aldeburgh beach and the North Sea. These CDs, however, are derived from the two concert performances at Snape Maltings in the first week of the Festival. You might think it would be better to wait for the Arthaus DVD of the Grimes on the beach which I shall also be reviewing for MusicWeb International, but here I consider the merits of this earlier presentation and they are considerable.
 
For me these CDs have four outstanding features. First, Alan Oke’s Peter Grimes which is distinctive and yet also different from earlier Peters. On the one hand he plays him as an ordinary bloke, straightforward and direct. On the other hand he is shown with a lyrical side which emerges through tension, a distraught lyricism. You can hear this for example at ‘Picture what that day was like’, recalling his first apprentice’s death. Its heart-wringing ‘Alone, alone, alone’ close has a poignancy which matches that of Peter Pears in Britten’s 1958 recording (Decca 4757713). Oke’s expression is immediate, as if re-lived at that moment, where Pears’ is more poetically meditative. This distinction also applies in the ‘What harbour shelters peace’ soliloquy which ends the scene and Oke’s lucid transparency here I find more engaging. At his aria in Act 1 Scene 2, ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, beginning gently, not a quality one usually associates with Peter, Oke finds a purer, heightened lyricism. Thjis is not the haunting golden tone of Pears but comes from a more credible base than Pears’ more distant poet. The same might be said of the Act 2 Scene 2 aria ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’. Here Oke has an attractive fluency where Pears seems able to make time stand still. In the closing Mad Scene Oke conveys both Peter’s volatility, his excessive reaction to the community he imagines closing around him and his fundamental innocence in the purity of his lyricism. He lacks Pears’ weariness or intimacy of expression but Oke still gives a moving and memorable account.
 
The second outstanding feature is the chorus. In fact two choruses were merged, that of Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The latter, a third of the 48-strong force, are of young, student principal study singers. The outcome is great clarity of articulation and diction. At the opening of Act 1 they present a calm acceptance of their accustomed routine but also a keen appreciation of the might of the sea at ‘Are billets for the thieving waves which take/As if in sleep, thieving for thieving’s sake’. Their first passage rising to ff, which needs to tell and it does. In comparison the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus in Britten’s recording seems heavy and sullen. When the chorus berates Ellen later in this scene Bedford’s forces do so with more menace than Britten’s. They face the storm in the big chorus and ensemble in Act 1 Scene 1 with distress yet also determination. Britten’s recording, on the other hand, emphasizes the disciplined virtuosity of the music in comparison with which the words expressed appear secondary. With Bedford you note the earnestness of the beach prayer, ‘O tide that waits for no man, spare our coasts!’ that is never found when they sing in church in Act 2 Scene 1. There their Benedicite has instead a restlessness which matches the recitative of Peter and Ellen at the same time. Their song in procession to Peter’s hut at the end of that scene is both biting and a jamboree. The briskly articulated fugue in Act 3 Scene 1, ‘Him who despises us, we’ll destroy’, is more clinical but worked into a great adrenalin shower of ecstatic ‘Ha-ha’s. It’s not as nasty as the more measured Britten’s chorus gloating, but suitably capped by cries of ‘Peter Grimes’ with soprano and tenor top B flats ringing out thrillingly.
 
The third outstanding feature is the Britten-Pears Orchestra made up of conservatoire students or recent graduates from 35 countries. It lacks the sheer body of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in Britten’s recording but it’s fresh, incisive, alert to both the dramatic and comic aspects of the accompaniment. The Sea Interludes are conveyed with a raw atmosphere, excitement and tension. In Dawn the sea is always a lurking presence, a power held in reserve, revealing itself fully only at the interlude’s climax. Bedford’s Storm is fiery and demonic, though Britten’s recording has more urgency and sheer frenzy. Bedford’s Sunday Morning has clear church bells pealing from the horns, strings’ waves and woodwind birds dancing around. His Passacaglia opens with a fragile yet also sinewy viola solo depicting the apprentice and then has an irresistible momentum. Britten also has the latter feature and rather more of it in the waves’ majority presence in Moonlight. Bedford emphasizes the flickering activity above them more at first. He effects a transformation as the waves become more insistent and the activity tangential. This links well with the frivolity of the dance activities that are the backcloth to Act 3 Scene 1 which follows immediately.
 
The final outstanding feature and perhaps the most significant is the vividness of the interplay of characters and integral orchestral contribution. This is the achievement of Steuart Bedford. The passages of recitative between the Borough characters are more animated and conversational than in Britten’s recording. Henry Waddington’s Swallow is forthright and confident. Though less taunting and aggressive than Owen Brannigan’s for Britten, he nevertheless is sufficiently arch to contrast with David Kempster’s Balstrode who is more straightforwardly, you might say naturally, authoritative. James Pease’s Balstrode for Britten is less characterful than Kempster. Charles Rice’s Ned Keene - I disagree with my MusicWeb International colleague Simon Thompson - here is more racy and amused by everything than Geraint Evans for Britten. Stephen Richardson’s Hobson also has a wryness about his ‘I have to go from pub to pub’ that’s more endearing than the resentment conveyed by David Kelly for Britten. With ample vibrato Giselle Allen presents Ellen with her emotions always fully on display. This works well in her big Act 1 aria ‘Let her among you without fault’. I prefer Claire Watson’s greater calmness for Britten in her ‘love duet’ with Peter ending the Prologue. Gaynor Keeble’s Auntie here I find a touch more robust than Jean Watson’s for Britten.
 
The clarity of the ensemble work helps in the enjoyment of the often complex textures. For instance, in Act 1 Scene 2 I realized for the first time the Nieces’ lines solely on high E at ‘His song alone would sour the beer’(tr. 22, 2:41) and ‘I wouldn’t mind if he didn’t howl’ (2:52) ironically mimic Peter’s ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ on the same note. The round ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’, the centrepiece of that scene, is delivered lightly at first as marked and is therefore a gleeful celebration. In this it is truer to the spirit of the piece, the community at its happiest, than the greater urgency but more emphasis on virtuosity of the equally clear layering of Britten’s recording. In Bedford’s account the Nieces’ fine descant to top A flat on ‘O haul away’ (tr. 23, 2:07) clearly caps Peter’s entry leaping the same note at ‘When I had gone fishing’ (1:26). With muted strings the quartet for Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces which ends this scene is plainly a lullaby, though an oddball one. I always feel for the First Niece, asked to sing the closing ‘sleep’ pp on top D flat, so full marks to Alexandra Hutton for doing it so well.
 
Seeing an opera provides a more complete experience of what is a multimedia form but the visual input can also be a distraction. You can view the restriction here to sound alone positively as a specialization. Because you are hearing a concert performance, you gain the genuine projection to an audience a studio recording can only simulate. Because that performance is looking forward to a staged one there’s an additional buzz about it. The result is an end product that works, perhaps surprisingly, well on its own - a freshly minted interpretation.

Michael Greenhalgh
 

 

Britten review index & discography: Peter Grimes



Previous review: Simon Thompson


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