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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes, Op 33 (1944-45) [138;16]
Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton (tenor); Boy (John) – Samuel Winter; Ellen Orford – Erin Wall (soprano); Captain Balstrode – Roderick Williams (baritone); Auntie – Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano); Nieces – Hanna Husáhr & Vibeke Kristensen (sopranos); Bob Boles – Robert Murray (tenor); Swallow – Neal Davies (bass-baritone); Mrs Sedley – Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano); Rev. Horace Adams – James Gilchrist (tenor); Ned Keene – Marcus Farnsworth (baritone); Hobson – Barnaby Rea (bass); Fishermen – Francis Brett & David Hansford (basses); A Lawyer – Vernon Kirk (tenor); A Fisherwoman – Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano); Burgesses – James Berry, Peter Brooks, Andrew Masterson, George Butler, Samuel Knock, James Holt; Choral soprano – Catrin Woodruff-Abel.
Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Edvard Grieg Kor; Royal Northern College of Music Chorus; Choir of Collegium Musicum
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner
rec. 24 October, and live, 25-27 November 2019, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. DDD
English libretto included
CHANDOS CHSA5250(2) SACD [82:39 + 55:37]

This performance of Peter Grimes was recorded in Bergen last November, although the orchestral interludes were separately set down on a single day in October. It’s not stated explicitly in the documentation that the November sessions were live, semi-staged performances but I’m as sure as I can be that was the case since the booklet contains a good selection of photographs, all of which are captioned as stemming from the dress rehearsal in the Grieghallen, and a staging director (Charles Kilpatrick) is credited. Furthermore, all the artists brought the show, semi-staged, to London’s Royal Festival Hall on 30 November 2019, when my Seen and Heard colleague, Jim Pritchard, was among the audience (review).

Certainly, this recorded performance has a dramatic frisson such as one would get from live recordings and good, though not exaggerated, use is made of spatial effects. However, the classic 1958 Decca recording conducted by the composer also utilises movement and spatial effects, even though that was made under studio conditions. I thought long and hard about whether or not to make detailed comparisons with the Britten recording. In the end I decided not to do so, though I’ll make some comparative references to it. I made this decision for a couple of reasons. The Britten recording is arguably sui generis, especially with Peter Pears in the title role. I think that, sixty-two years later we have to move on and not judge every new recording of the work by that original recording, which is now historic in every sense. Edward Gardner’s recording demands to be judged on its own, considerable merits without backward glances at Britten’s version. One comment that I will make, though, before moving on concerns the recorded sound of the new recording as compared with the December 1958 Decca version, which was made in the Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London. I wasn’t able to be present when my colleagues recently auditioned both recordings in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. Returning to the Decca CDs on my own equipment, I would completely endorse their admiration for Kenneth Wilkinson’s engineering. I have a copy of Decca’s first CD release of the opera – spread over three CDs. I don’t know if it has been subsequently remastered but on the 1985 CD issue the sound is amazingly good. If Decca were to reissue this recording as a Blu-ray disc, as my colleagues suggested, I think it would give any twenty-first century version a run for its money. I would respectfully disagree with one observation which my colleagues made about the Chandos sound, however. They appear to have found the detail and wide dynamic range excessive. I listened to the stereo layer of the Chandos SACDs, using both loudspeakers and, primarily, headphones and I thought that the Chandos sound was vivid and the dynamic range was admirable. I revelled in the detail that the Chandos recording conveyed - though the Decca version also reveals a great deal of detail.

Chandos have cast this recording from strength, with a stellar list of primarily British singers. If I were to comment on all the significant performances this review would be excessively long. In any case, it’s fair to say that there isn’t a weak link in the cast. One or two performers demand special mention, however. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is an excellent Mrs Sedley. I love the passage in Act I, scene 1 where she’s told she’ll have to visit The Boar to collect her sleeping draught. ‘I’ve never been in a pub in my life’, she exclaims and the affront to her dignity is palpable, exceeded only by her distaste for the prospect of mixing with the lower orders. Later, in Act III, Catherine Wyn-Rogers amusingly makes Mrs Sedley into a Miss Marple-like figure as she outlines her suspicions about the disappearance of Grimes and his apprentice.

I also liked James Gilchrist’s portrayal of Rev Adams. He doesn’t overdo the characterisation of a country parson but he brings a well-judged degree of rectitude to his depiction of the character. Susan Bickley is a richly-characterised Auntie and I also enjoyed the contributions of Marcus Farnsworth and Neal Davies as, respectively, Ned Keene and Swallow. Roderick Williams gives an expertly nuanced performance as Captain Balstrode, nowhere more so than in Act III, scene 1 where, in offering Ellen help to find Grimes – and a degree of reassurance – he demonstrates the innate decency of the Captain. Williams’ singing is splendid from start to finish but, oddly, the moment in his performance that made the greatest impression on me was the short passage in Act III, scene 2 where he speaks rather than sings. When he says to Peter, ‘Come on, I’ll help you with the boat’ and then tells him to sail out to sea and scuttle the boat, Roderick Williams inflects the words with gentle compassion but firmness too; it’s ideal verbal acting.

As I was drawing this review together, we learned of the premature death at the age of just 44 of the Canadian soprano, Erin Wall. I’ve seen her live a few times and also heard a couple of her recordings but I don’t think I’ve heard her do anything better than her performance here as Ellen Orford. Ellen is a widow schoolmistress, which might imply a woman of a certain age. Claire Watson, on the Britten set, sounds a little more mature as a character but, given the life expectancy of both men and women in the early nineteenth century there’s nothing to say that Ellen might not have been a relatively young widow. In any case, I find Ms Wall’s portrayal completely convincing In Act I, scene 1 she’s very expressive and she displays no little compassion as she reproaches the Borough residents for their unsympathetic attitude to Grimes (‘Let her among you without fault…’). Near the start of Act II, Ms Wall is very convincing as she tries to persuade Grimes to take better care of his new apprentice and she shows, too, her concern for Grimes himself in some touching singing (‘Were we mistaken when we schemed…?’) Her performance is crowned by her anguish in seeing Grimes at rock bottom in Act III. Throughout the performance I admired the emotional range of Erin Wall’s portrayal and I enjoyed very much the beauty of her singing. This, I presume, was her last recording and, if so, it’s a fitting reminder of a fine artist but it also prompts sad thoughts of what more she might have achieved had she lived longer.

Stuart Skelton has the unenviable task of following not only Peter Pears but also several other notable – and varied – singers in the title role. All I can say is that he met my expectations. Grimes is an archetypal outsider and the role calls for a wide range of emotions and, therefore, great variety in vocal production. The character, and therefore the singer who interprets the role, craves acceptance by his neighbours at times and, elsewhere, rages against them for their prejudice and lack of understanding. At other times we find Grimes longing for a better life. Finally, of course, there’s his descent into madness, of which more in a moment. It seems to me that Skelton meets all these emotional and vocal requirements very successfully. He may not be quite as individual as Peter Pears at such key moments as ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ and ‘What harbour shelters peace’ but there’s no lack of poetry in Skelton’s singing when the music demands it. He has the vocal power and incisiveness to convey Grimes’ anger and bitterness too. When Grimes reappears, his mind unhinged, in Act III scene 2 Skelton is magnificent. He offers a compelling piece of vocal acting to put across Britten’s searing musical depiction of madness. Pears is unforgettable in this passage – he sounds deranged (and I mean that as a compliment) and in the Decca recording he can be heard staggering from side to side of the soundstage. But Pears isn’t to everyone’s taste, of course. I found Skelton completely convincing here and, indeed, throughout the opera.

So far, I’ve concentrated on the soloists but there are other heroes in this enterprise. One is the combined chorus. I wonder if Edward Gardner used one of the choirs for the offstage singing – which is conveyed marvellously in this recording. I looked back at Jim Pritchard’s review of the London concert performance, though, and he gives no indication that this was done. Certainly, the onstage chorus sounds larger than the Chorus of the Royal Opera House, which sang on the Britten recording. Gardner’s main chorus is presented in a realistic concert-hall balance behind the orchestra – though the singers can be heard very clearly indeed – whereas Decca recorded the ROH Chorus, which will have been an ensemble of professional singers, more closely. Britten’s chorus is excellent but I prefer the balance that the Chandos engineers have achieved. Gardner’s choirs sing magnificently for him and with great dramatic commitment; their contribution is a significant plus point for this recording.

The playing of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is stunning. I thought my colleague, Simon Thompson made a very interesting point in his review of this set when he pointed out that Bergen is on the North Sea. The coastline around Bergen is very different to the Suffolk coastal landscape but I think Simon’s point is well made. The orchestra – and, for that matter, many of the chorus members – will have an affinity with the stormy and often inhospitable North Sea. I’m not quite sure why the orchestral interludes were recorded separately but those episodes have been woven seamlessly into the recording as a whole. The BPO portrays the musical tempests with great bite and incisiveness and they’re just as compelling in the quieter passages. The orchestra is an important protagonist in this score, providing great amounts of crucial colour and atmosphere, and the Bergen players give a superb, gripping account of the orchestral aspect of the work.

Edward Gardner conducts marvellously. I feel that he paces the drama to perfection; his long experience as an opera conductor is well to the fore here. He has proved in several previous recordings made in Bergen that he’s adept at handling large, complex musical ensembles and he shows that ability in spades here. Above all, he maintains the dramatic tension throughout. I felt drawn into this performance right from the start of the Prologue and thereafter Gardner and his colleagues held me in their grip. I’ve been impressed with a number of Gardner’s previous recordings but I venture to suggest that this is his finest recording achievement to date.

I’ve already commented on the recorded sound but I’ll reiterate that it is very fine indeed. Engineer Jonathan Cooper, working with colleagues from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, has produced vivid sound that has all the impact you could wish for. There’s a splendid front-to-back perspective and also a satisfying depth to the sound.

As usual, Chandos are very thorough in their documentation. There’s a very good essay about the opera by Mervyn Cooke, a useful synopsis and the full libretto. (The notes are in French and German also, but the libretto is in English only.). It’s obviously important to have the libretto though I ought to say that the diction of soloists and chorus is excellent. My only concern about the 130-page booklet is that there’s so much to pack in - including a generous selection of photos taken at the dress rehearsal – that a very small print font is used. Since my eyesight isn’t 20/20, I found it a strain to follow.

Peter Grimes is a great opera and a landmark in British music. This enthralling recording is fully worthy of the work’s stature and a significant addition to its discography.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson

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