Britten
Peter Grimes – An opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater after George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough”
Peter Grimes – Glenn Winslade
Ellen Orford – Janice Watson
Balstrode – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Auntie – Jill Grove
First Niece – Sally Matthews
Second Niece – Alison Buchanan
Bob Boles – Christopher Gillett
Swallow – James Rutherford
Mrs Sedley – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Rector – Ryland Davies
Ned Keene – Nathan Gunn
Hobson – Jonathan Lemalu

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded at concert performances on January 10 & 12, 2004 in the Barbican Hall, London
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0054
(3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 23 minutes
Reviewed: August 2004
I reviewed the first of the two concerts from which this LSO Live release is derived and can attest to the electric atmosphere that was conveyed through the hall on that occasion. As ever, with a performance and reading of integrity and commitment, it served to remind one of the power of this work.
But as is often the case, this purely auditory experience somehow does not carry the same sense of gripping conviction, well though it is cast, sung and played. Peter Grimes has a small but distinguished discography, with three of the now five complete recordings being with forces from the Royal Opera House, including the composer's own, and the first to challenge that version, conducted by the company's then music director, was Colin Davis.
Davis's LSO reading is broadly similar in conception to his earlier one, but is tauter and more incisive. His previous Grimes – the inimitable Jon Vickers – often broadened phrases for expressive effect, right from his first entry. One might argue that this is sometimes wilful, however undeniably effective histrionically. In this respect, Davis and Glenn Winslade are closer to the letter of the score. Davis's interpretation – and the LSO's response – underlines the violence which is very often barely below the surface. The biting brass interjections, heavy bass drum strokes, and shrieking wind – all superbly caught – testify to Britten's command of orchestration and instrumental characterisation.
It is noticeable – as it was at the concert – how well integrated the Sea Interludes are; in many ways, the weight of the drama is conveyed through them, from the bleakness of Dawn, through to the force of the Passacaglia (a stunning realisation of Britten's stringendo markings) and the overwhelming Storm, this music comes off the page graphically.
The London Symphony Chorus is – invariably so these days – on fabulous form, with mutterings and full-throated outbursts making full impact. As recorded, however, it is rather close, and some of the quieter entries are much too loud. Conversely, the chorus’s contribution to the offstage church service in Act Two is too distant. At times, this is barely heard, which nullifies the irony of the ecclesiastical 'commentary' on the argument between Grimes and Ellen.
All the cast are new to their roles on disc, save Janice Watson's Ellen Orford, who may be heard on Chandos, also with the London Symphony Chorus, but with the City of London Sinfonia, under Richard Hickox, and in the company of Philip Langridge's penetrating performance of the title role. This time around Watson's essentially sympathetic timbre is marred by an intrusive vibrato and some of her entries lack poise. She is at her best at the start of Act Two in her one-sided conversation with Grimes's new boy-apprentice, and in the subsequent altercation with Peter. She begins the big ensemble “We planned that their lives should have a new start” with clarity and authority, later dominating as would any Verdi heroine. She rather misses the inward aspect of “Embroidery in childhood”, but generally presents a compassionate character, even if one senses that this Ellen feels Peter is a 'lost cause' right from the start.
Glenn Winslade is up against formidable competition, not only from Vickers, but, of course, from the creator of the part, Peter Pears, under the composer's tensile direction on Decca. Winslade is at his most effective in the more inward aspects of the role, though his ruminations in the second act are marred by some wayward intonation. One feels little danger from this Grimes, and whilst one mustn't downplay his poetic streak, his comments such as “I'll tear the collar of your neck” and “You and that bitch were gossiping” – addressed to the apprentice – need to be enunciated with greater venom. He is good in the argument with Balstrode in Act One, and the ‘mad scene’ is made the more touching by a degree of restraint, though the manic cries of “Peter Grimes” surely need a degree of desperation which is lacking. Winslade's is an effective enough reading, but in the final analysis, there are stronger and more individual interpretations captured on disc.
The remainder of the cast is more youthful-sounding than are some of rivals. James Rutherford's Swallow comes over well, conveying a streak of nastiness amidst the pomposity of the Prologue, and Jonathan Lemalu's warm-voiced Hobson is gratifying to hear. Nathan Gunn, strangely, makes more of an impression as recorded than he did in the concert hall. His clear diction and apt delivery are most commendable, whilst Ryland Davies avoids the temptation to present a caricature in his portrayal of the Rector. Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode is clearly on Grimes's side throughout. His irritation with the Borough gossips and his empathy with Grimes's plight are aptly projected. If he ultimately does not completely suggest the weather-beaten Sea Captain, his vocal resource is a pleasure in itself.
Christopher Gillett sounds appropriately fanatical as Bob Boles, but he is rather strained at times, and he does not always project well in the ensembles. Jill Grove and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Auntie and Mrs Sedley respectively, both give rounded portrayals, with firm tone and articulation. Their argument in Act Three is a passage to savour. Earlier, Grove conveys sympathy towards Ellen's predicament, whilst Wyn-Rogers suggests Mrs Sedley's fanaticism, without becoming grotesque. Sally Matthews and Alison Buchanan are the feisty pair of Nieces, and they, together with Janice Watson and Jill Grove, make the Act Two quartet a moment of respite in the turmoil of the drama.
The opera is laid out with one act per disc. All the other versions (save the original release of Britten's) use two. A full libretto is also provided. With its strong cast and dedicated conducting, this is certainly a version to be recommended. Ultimately, with more individuality in the leading roles, one would probably turn elsewhere for a fully satisfying performance. Davis's LSO Live issue is one to supplement, rather than supplant, existing recommendations.

 

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