Britten Peter Grimes
With three worthwhile versions already in the catalogue, you may wonder whether there is place for another. The answer is emphatically “Yes” when it is as well sung, played, conducted and recorded as this one. Any reading that so potently confirms the genius of this piece must have a distinguished place in its discography. Or, you can put it another way: the work itself has once again inspired its interpreters to give of their very best.
In the first place there is Langridge’s tense, sinewy, sensitive Grimes. His performances of the role in the opera house had led one to hope that he would record it and expectations are fulfilled by his astonishingly vivid singing here. Taking as an exemplar his participation in the Act 2 Hut scene, you hear first the fiery attack on the borough gossips, then the eager fisherman grasping his opportunity at “Look now is our chance”, then the visionary at “In dreams I’ve built myself”, finally the man’s intensity at “Calling there is no stone”. For each of these passages Langridge finds not only the right colour but also the appropriate verbal emphases. Like everything he does, the flavour of his singing is tangy, individual.
Predictably he rises to the challenge of the Mad scene; as on stage this is a man hugely to be pitied, yet there is a touch of resignation, of finding some sort of peace at last, after all the agony of the soul. Earlier he doesn’t quite match either Pears (Britten) or Rolfe Johnson (Haitink) in poetic tone for “What harbour” and the Pleiades solo, and he can’t carry his voice over the ensemble later in that Inn scene as Vickers (Davis) easily does, but the compensations are appreciable. The portrayal is more tense and immediate than that of Rolfe Johnson, more accurate than, and just as anguished as, that of Vickers and a match for that of Pears in personal identification – listen to the eager touch at “We strained in the wind” (fig. 41 in Act 1).
The next composite heroes are the members of the chorus. Electrifying as their rivals are, the LSO singers 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. But then Hickox is renowned in training choirs and knows these charges well. His whole 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. Note, too, how a detail like the oboe/violin incursion at fig. 38 in Act 1 is made to tell, and whole episodes, such as the Grimes/Balstrode dispute in Act 1, have seldom sounded so dramatic. Once or twice I would have liked a firmer forward movement, as in the fifth Interlude (Britten’s own direction of this Passacaglia is that bit more urgent), but the sense of total music-theatre is present throughout and it’s excitingly laid before us by the City of London Sinfonia and the recording. Interestingly, this is the first set not using Covent Garden forces.
Of the other soloists, Alan Opie is an experienced and sympathetic Balstrode, John Graham-Hall a biting Bob Boles (but he is inclined to neigh and lacks the fanatic insistence found in each of his rivals), and John Connell a warm and articulate Swallow. It is rewarding to have chronicled Anne Collins’s spitfire of a Mrs Sedley and John Fryatt’s pedantic Rector, both very precise characterizations. Ameral Gunson is suitably blowzy and open-hearted as Auntie. Roderick Williams’s lightweight, light-hearted Ned Keene is very much in the picture.
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 I miss the conviction of Harper (Davis), even more that of Lott (Haitink), also their specific way with the text. Watson is very much part of a convincing team but doesn’t have the experience to stand out from the village regulars and sound important, as Ellen should.
With that one reservation, I would now place this version just above those of both Davis and Haitink, if only by a small margin, but one will need to live with it a while before being firm on the point. Britten’s set is, of course, hors concours (the composer’s own taut conducting remains unsurpassed), but for all its unique associations, that recording (and it stretches over three CDs) inevitably yields place to the new, which is up to the highest tradition of Chandos sound: indeed, quite spectacular, vast in range, with well-managed perspectives and just enough hints of stage action to be convincing.'