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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes (1945)
Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Ellen Orford – Erin Wall (soprano)
Balstrode – Roderick Williams (bar)
Auntie – Susan Bickley (mezzo)
Nieces – Hanna Husáhr, Vibeke Kristensen (sopranos)
Bob Boles – Robert Murray (tenor)
Swallow – Neal Davies (bass-bar)
Mrs Sedley – Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo)
Rev. Adams – James Gilchrist (tenor)
Ned Keene – Marcus Farnsworth (bar)
Hobson – Barnaby Rea (bass)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir
Edvard Grieg Kor
Royal Northern College of Music Chorus
Choir of Collegium Musicum
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2019, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
CHANDOS CHSA5250(2) SACD [82:39 + 55:37]

This recording of Peter Grimes comes off the back of a series of touring concert performances. I saw it in Edinburgh when it arrived at 2017’s Edinburgh International Festival with an almost identical cast to this recording’s, and it is seared into my memory as one of the highlights of that year’s festival. I emerged dazed onto the street after the final ovations. This might officially have been a concert, but it was undeniably a staging. They had props, costumes, entrances and exits, and I was really struck by how well the chorus was integrated into the dramatic whole, acting their socks off even while trapped in the Usher Hall’s organ gallery.

This recording was set down in Bergen two years after my experience. The booklet, which contains lots of performance photographs that jogged my memory yet further, doesn’t quite specify whether it was made live with an audience or in studio conditions later, though I suspect the latter. That time lapse made me wonder: was the project always intended to culminate in a recording, or were the concerts performances so brilliantly received that someone made the decision that they had to be preserved?

Either way, it doesn’t matter: it’s brilliant. This is the best Peter Grimes we’ve had since Chandos’ other recording, conducted by Richard Hickox; finer even than the Aldeburgh performance that blew me away in the composer’s centenary year. For one thing, every aspect of the drama I experienced in the Usher Hall is retained and, in some senses, intensified. That includes the crowd noises and some stereo effects that render the action immersive, particularly so each time the door of the pub flies open in Act 1. The chorus are, again, superb. You would never guess that most of them are not natural Anglophones, so impeccable is their English. They howl up a storm in the opening scenes of Acts 2 and 3 as popular feeling turns against Grimes but, on the opposite scale, they manage a brilliantly chilling whisper at “Talk of the devil” when Grimes enters the pub. They throw themselves into the action as well as the music, and much of that is, surely, down to conductor Ed Gardner.

This performance captures the best of Gardner, combining his decades of experience as a man of the theatre with the warmth and intimacy that comes from working with his own Bergen Orchestra. He understands Britten’s score as well as any conductor alive today, and there is a thrilling directness to his performance that brings the piece to vivid life. The big set pieces of the interludes are each beautifully crafted, none more so than “Sunday Morning”, which sparkles as brightly as the sunlight on the beach, but he manages each of the transitions superbly, too. The move from Grimes’ scene with Balstrode into the Storm Interlude is managed brilliantly, and he orientates the whole of Act 2, perhaps the whole opera, around the moment when Grimes strikes Ellen. The orchestral climax that accompanies it is shattering, and after that moment the story seems steadily to drain of hope. Furthermore, it’s a clever decision to start the Passacaglia as slowly as he does, because it allows each increase in pace to increase the dramatic tension powerfully.

The orchestra play out of their skins for him. You’d never have thought that Britten could find such a natural home in Norway, but then Bergen’s experience of the North Sea must be even chillier than the one you get in Suffolk, so you could argue that they fit Britten’s world just as well. The violins certainly have a cold light to them when they play the Dawn interlude, the high keening of the gulls underpinned by rumbling brass that speak of unfathomable depths. In fact, those deep tones are, perhaps, the orchestra’s most successful colour in the opera, flowing darkly as Grimes pulls his boat ashore, the trombones and tubas conjuring up a tectonic swell in the Moonlight Interlude.

The singing is uniformly excellent, too. This opera has to be a company effort to succeed, and every element works. That goes from Roderick Williams’ bluff, no-nonsense Balstrode, right down to the marvellous drawl of Barnaby Rea’s Hobson. Marcus Farnsworth is a mischievous, sardonic Keene, while Neal Davies’ Swallow oozes self-importance. Susan Bickley’s sly Auntie and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ waspish Mrs Sedley are a treat, along with the unusually beautifully sung pair of nieces, and as Boles Robert Murray manages some impressively precise semiquavers as he denounces the villagers in Act 1.

Erin Wall’s Ellen is both beautifully sung and deeply sympathetic, nowhere more so than in her poignant embroidery aria. However, she is also consistently compellingly acted. Nowhere is that more true in the church scene when an awful shudder enters her voice on noticing the tear in the boy’s coat. Even before that, however, her chatter to the boy sounds like putting on a brave face, choosing to believe in an idealistic vision of her future family life, even as it falls away before her. “Child, you’re not too young to know” finds her sounding utterly deflated (see Footnote).

And at the apex of the pyramid is Stuart Skelton’s Grimes. The title role is such a contradictory figure because, as his two most famous interpreters have played him, he encompasses the visionary (Pears) and the brute (Vickers). Skelton’s performance is so masterly because he embodies the extremes of both at once. The coarse rawness of the character is palpable from the outset when, in the Prologue, you sense the anger of a man who feels himself falsely accused, and he manages a roar of anguish (or is it rage?) when he hits Ellen. In Act 1 he is a force of nature as the storm closes in, and he is chilling as he describes to Balstrode the death of his first apprentice. However, he is also deeply poignant as he describes to the boy his visions of a life with Ellen, and you can hear shades of Siegmund in his “Now the great bear.” This Grimes is a lover as well as an anti-hero, and the colour of Skelton’s voice is perfect for this. The final mad scene was hypnotic in the theatre: it remains so on disc. I can’t help but wonder if he will go down as the role’s ideal interpreter.

Chandos’ recording is of demonstration quality, and I listened in only two-channel stereo. The orchestral textures are all illuminated perfectly (listen to the final flick of the xylophone as Grimes draws his boat ashore) and the blend of voices and chorus with the orchestra is perfectly judged. The booklet contains a strong essay from Mervyn Cooke, plus the English libretto, all contained in a slimline slipcase. Only one complaint: the CD transition comes at a rather awkward point, after the quartet for Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces, and before the Passacaglia. It rather kills the naturalness of the transition, and could easily have been avoided by putting it somewhere else.

But that’s a small thing compared with the strength of everything else. Britten’s own Decca recording will always have an essential place on the shelf of anyone who loves this opera but, as I said above, this is the finest recording of this opera we’ve had since Hickox. The more I think about it, it may in fact be the finest yet.

Simon Thompson

1) Sadly, less than 12 months after this recording was made, Erin Wall passed away at the age of 44 after fighting cancer.

2) See Len Mullenger's Listening Studio Report on this recording.

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