Britten Peter Grimes
The transfer to CD of the Philips recording of Peter Grimes restores to the catalogue one of the most exciting and riveting operatic performances on disc, that of Jon Vickers as Grimes. Heard again after an interval, it seems better than ever, the occasionally rasping tone suggesting the man's violent and repressed nature far more truthfully than Sir Peter Pears's more restrained and gentlemanly performance on Britten's own classic Decca recording. The scorn in Vickers's voice in the Prologue when he sings ''Somebody brought the parson'' sets the tone for this vivid characterization. Yet he also conveys the visionary side of the 'sadistic fisherman', with a ravishingly beautiful account of the ''Great Bear and Pleiades'' aria in the pub scene.
But it is not all Vickers. There is also Heather Harper's perceptive and sympathetic vocal portrayal of Ellen Orford, more matronly than Claire Watson on the Decca set and also more dramatic in the Sunday Morning scene when she discovers the apprentice's bruises. Watson's softer conception of the role is, of course, superb in the context of Britten's interpretation, which is generally more romantic than Sir Colin Davis's. From Davis we get a tenser, more neurotic approach to the music, with the Interludes superbly played by the Royal Opera House orchestra.
There is little to choose between the performances of the smaller roles. Both Davis and Britten draw sharply etched vignettes from their singers, with Jonathan Summers a splendidly bluff Balstrode on the Philips set. The chorus is in fine voice on both sets. Decca gave Britten a very full and detailed recording; the Philips set is more atmospheric, but some may find the off-stage church service in Act 2 a fraction too distant.
A choice between these two classic recordings—a new one is promised within the next year—must depend on whether one prefers Britten-Pears to Davis-Vickers. I think there is no choice—have both, for both have outstanding merits. Remember, though, the Vickers plays about with the text, sometimes omitting lines altogether. But if you want only one Peter Grimes, the fact that the Philips set is on two mid-price discs against Decca's three full-price could tempt you to opt for the former instead of the received wisdom of the incomparable original.'