Britten’s Peter Grimes – concert performance – Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Keable, with John Hudson as Grimes


Peter Grimes – opera in three Acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater adapted from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough

Peter Grimes – John Hudson
Ellen Orford – Mari Wyn Williams
Captain Balstrode – Nicholas Folwell
Ned Keene – Nicholas Morris
Mrs Sedley – Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Auntie – Mae Heydorn
Rev Horace Adams – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Bob Boles – Colin Judson
Swallow – Paul Sheehan
Hobson – Ronald Nairne
Nieces – Ally Dunavant & Micaela Abreu

Epiphoni Consort

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 5 February, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra is now in its sixty-seventh year. With its music director Russell Keable in the post for the past forty of them, this non-professional band has pulled of some remarkable achievements – the British premiere of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and an incandescent outing for Bruckner Five among them. This performance of Peter Grimes was in the same ambitious league, delivered with considered elan by a strong cast and chorus, and by the KSO playing to all its strengths.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall stage was as packed as I’ve ever seen it, and the one misgiving I had was that the chorus, the excellent fifty-strong Epiphoni Consort, was placed right at the back, which inevitably meant more distance – very atmospheric in the decaying cries of “Grimes” in Act Three – than the flexible layering that can transform a staged performance. Because of the many ensembles and brief dialogues, all twelve soloists were present throughout. The effect of various combinations standing then sitting was a bit like a graphic equaliser in human form, and incidentally a powerful reminder of how skillfully Britten weaved his canvas of the outsider Grimes at the mercy of the suspicious, merciless Borough townspeople.

Britten, a consummate dramatist, knew how a staging can flatter, cover, round off and absorb music and libretto, and a concert performance leaves nowhere to hide – in the case of Peter Grimes, some archness and melodrama in the libretto. As much as they were able, the singers characterised their roles vividly – the polarity of Grimes versus the rest was deftly tempered by Mari Wyn Williams’s intensely sung and sympathetic Ellen and Nicholas Folwell’s bluff and direct Captain Balstrode, the retired seaman who gets the point of Grimes but is powerless to help him. Nicholas Morris exuded plenty of menace as the dodgy apothecary, and Ronald Nairne was in big, arresting voice as Hobson. Paul Sheehan dominated the Prologue as the lawyer Swallow, and Colin Judson as the wheedling, drunken Methodist preacher Bob Boles neatly got under the skin of John-Colyn Gyeantey’s elegantly sung hand-wringing Anglican rector Horace Adams. Playing down her role’s pantomime potential, Susanna Tudor-Thomas gave a startlingly direct portrayal of the toxic town busybody Mrs Sedley, and Auntie and her Nieces were sharply observed by Mae Heydorn, Ally Dunavant and Micaela Abreu – their Straussian quartet with Ellen a stand-out moment of repose.

I think this was John Hudson’s debut as Grimes. He had the ideal burly presence – he towered over everyone in the cast – and visionary detachment for the role, with a mesmerising soft voice used to great effect in the Great Bear aria, the ‘one-note’ that just became more and more withdrawn, and while he didn’t overplay Grimes’s climactic mad scene in Act Three, he completely convinced in its unstoppable internalisation – and that’s not to downplay the heroics of his impressively full voice. It’s a strange role, the lead who is often not there, and Hudson played it marvellously.

Russell Keable kept momentum simmering, giving the Interludes and a lovely, stealthy Passacaglia room to make their atmospheric points, especially in the mysterious and still ‘Moonlight’, and the playing was idiomatic, detailed and highly responsive. All of which bodes well for Mahler Three on May 20.

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