Britten's Peter Grimes
The Gramophone Choice
Peter Pears ten Peter Grimes Claire Watson sop Ellen Orford James Pease bass Captain Balstrode Jean Watson contr Auntie Raymond Nilsson ten Bob Boles Owen Brannigan bass Swallow Lauris Elms mez Mrs Sedley Sir Geraint Evans bar Ned Keene John Lanigan ten Rector David Kelly bass Hobson Marion Studholme sop First Niece Iris Kells sop Second Niece Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Benjamin Britten
Decca 467 682-2DL2 (142' · ADD · N) Recorded 1958. Buy from Amazon
Also available in ‘The Complete Britten Operas, Vol 1, also containing Albert Herring, Billy Budd and Owen Wingrave (475 6020DC8 – eight discs). Buy from Amazon
The Decca set, which in 1958 introduced this opera to many listeners, has never been superseded in its refinement or insight. Britten’s conducting, lithe and lucid, reveals his work as a complex, ambiguous drama. Peter Pears, in the title-role written for him, brings unsurpassed detail of nuance to Grimes’s words while never losing sight of the essential plainness of the man’s speech. The rest of the cast form a vivid portrait gallery of characters. The recording is as live and clear as if it had been made yesterday, and takes the listener right on to the stage. The bustle of activity and sound effects realise nicely Britten’s own masterly painting of dramatic foreground and background.
Philip Langridge ten Grimes Janice Watson sop Ellen Orford Alan Opie bar Captain Balstrode Ameral Gunson mez Auntie John Graham-Hall ten Bob Boles John Connell bass Swallow Anne Collins contr Mrs Sedley Roderick Williams bar Ned Keene John Fryatt ten Rector Matthew Best bass Hobson Yvonne Barclay sop First Niece Pamela Helen Stephen mez Second Niece London Symphony Chorus; City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN9447 (147' · DDD · N/T) Buy from Amazon
Any reading that so potently confirms the genius of this piece must have a distinguished place in the discography. In the first place there’s Langridge’s tense, sinewy, sensitive Grimes. Predictably he rises to the challenge of the Mad scene; this is a man hugely to be pitied, yet there’s a touch of resignation, of finding some sort of peace at last, after all the agony of the soul. His portrayal is tense and immediate, and a match for that of Pears in personal identification – listen to the eager touch at ‘We strained in the wind’. The next composite heroes are the members of the chorus. Electrifying as their rivals are, the LSO singers, trained by Stephen Westrop, seem just that much more arresting, not least in the hue and cry of Act 3, quite terrifying in its immediacy as recorded by Chandos. Hickox’s interpretation has little to fear from the distinguished competition. Many details are placed with special care, particularly in the Interludes and the parodistic dances in Act 3, and whole episodes, such as the Grimes-Balstrode dispute in Act 1, have seldom sounded so dramatic. Once or twice one would have liked a firmer forward movement, as in the fifth Interlude, but the sense of total music-theatre is present throughout.
Of the other soloists, the one comparative disappointment is Janice Watson’s Ellen Orford. She sings the part with tone as lovely as any of her rivals on disc and with carefully wrought phrasing, but doesn’t have the experience to stand out from the village regulars. Britten’s set remains hors concours but Hickox is the finest of the modern recordings: as sound it’s quite spectacular, vast in range, with well-managed perspectives and just enough hints of stage action to be convincing.
Christopher Ventris ten Peter Grimes Emily Magee sop Ellen Orford Alfred Muff bar Balstrode Liliana Nikiteanu contr Auntie Sandra Trattnigg sop First Niece Liuba Chuchrova sop Second Niece Rudolf Schasching ten Bob Boles Richard Angas bass Swallow Cornelia Kallisch mez Mrs Sedley Martin Zysset ten Rev Horace Adams Cheyne Davidson bar Ned Keene Valeriy Murga bass Hobson Zürich Opera House Chorus and Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst
Stage director David Pountney
Video director Felix Breisach
EMI DVD 500971-9 (150’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo, 5.1 and DTS 5.1 · 0) Recorded live 2005. Buy from Amazon
Peter’s line ‘Where the walls themselves gossip of inquest’ – his cry of pain to Ellen after the coroner’s open verdict on the loss of his first apprentice – cues the scenery and concept. The Borough, some of its citizens mounted on chairs and pillars permanently suspended above an unchanging set, is never absent from this stylised, Brechtian (and Weillian) production. Pountney’s stage has no room for naturalistic clutter – no real boats, no fishing nets, no beach.
The English director’s characters step out of years of ‘English’ ambiguity into a light of glaring every-man (and woman)-for-himself selfishness. Balstrode listens to Grimes (Christopher Ventris, riveting) but only once (the capstan ensemble) does anything to help him; in the pub he gropes the women as much as Boles. Auntie, a red-headed Widow Begbick played with Oscar-winning charisma by Liliana Nikiteanu, and her Nieces are, quite openly, a Madame and her whores. Hobson, another terrifyingly intense portrayal, is a lazy, uncooperative psychopath, roused only by drink and the prospect of violence. Ellen is allowed more intimacy with Peter than one often sees but, as soon as she realises his obsessive work methods will never change, her ‘Peter – we’ve failed’ is final, provoking Grimes to inevitable self-destruction. In a penultimate Mad scene of haunting, almost religious (or sacrilegious) beauty, she and Balstrode sit with a dead boy each draped across their laps, either side of the constantly see-sawing Peter on a stylised boat platform with a cross-like mast. Unforgettable.
Welser-Möst’s reading of the score is hardly less innovative, reminding one with its forward, motoric winds of some great, lost Shostakovich score and, in the dance music so present in the pub scenes, of contemporaries Weill and Gershwin.
No Grimes on film is without some distinctive merit but this new EMI issue is carried by its cast, phenomenal chorus contribution, director and conductor to an important new interpretative level.