RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
‘Skelton’s monologues are neither sentimentalised nor indulged, but outpourings from Grimes’s soul ’
Mike Ashman celebrates a triumphant recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes with an outstanding cast and Bergen forces led by Edward Gardner, all presented in superb sound
Britten Peter Grimes Stuart Skelton ten ��������������������������������������������������� Peter Grimes Erin Wall sop ���������������������������������������������������������������� Ellen Orford Roderick Williams bar �������������������������������������������������� Balstrode Susan Bickley mez ��������������������������������������������������������������� Auntie Robert Murray ten �������������������������������������������������������� Bob Boles Neal Davies bass-bar ��������������������������������������������������������� Swallow Catherine Wyn-Rogers mez ����������������������������������Mrs Sedley Marcus Farnsworth bar �������������������������������������������� Ned Keene James Gilchrist ten ����������������������������������� Rev Horace Adams Barnaby Rea bass ����������������������������������������������������������������Hobson Hanna Husáhr sop ���������������������������������������������������������������� Niece I Vibeke Kristensen sop ������������������������������������������������������Niece II Edvard Grieg Choir; Royal Northern College of Music Chorus; Choir of Collegium Musicum; Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Edward Gardner Chandos F b Í CHSA5250 (138’ • DDD) Includes synopsis and libretto
You could now round up more than a baker’s dozen recorded versions officially released of Grimes in all formats, visual and audio. That’s not bad going for a 1945 opera based on an obscure early 19th-century provincial English poem, set to music by an at-the-time hardly known composer, his opera moreover written and premiered at a time when a world war was just finishing.
Edward Gardner first established his credentials in this work with a thrilling reading of an equally thrilling, David Alden-directed staging at English National Opera. Grimes’s dramaturgical conception has always made it especially suitable for ensemble-based performances. It is a most apt choice for Gardner’s own Norwegian company in Bergen – like Britten’s Aldeburgh itself a sea-going community – and, despite the prominence of Anglophone names and performers here, the local orchestra and the local choruses stamp a distinctive mark on what we hear. A further buzz of excitement is added by the fact that the recording was made (in the city’s acoustically famous Grieghallen) following staged concert performances in preparation for a tour.
The strength of both the maestro’s and the leading tenor’s interpretations here is the difficult one of balance between the ‘hurlyburly’ (as the libretto has it) of the sea-going and working life of the community and the deliberately formal musical structure of Britten’s score. In the past – and especially in live performances – one or the other often has come to dominate to excess. The famous Jon Vickers reading of the title-role – one on disc, one on film, both a closely prepared collaboration with Colin Davis and stage director Elijah Moshinsky – was (and is) knife-edge ‘thrilling’ (I have to use the word again). And it was also, perhaps, a necessary corrective to the un-violent and poetically classical reading by Peter Pears, the role’s creator; it was an essential part of moving the piece forwards in the opera world’s repertoire. (We will note, but ultimately not make a judgement from, the rumours that the composer did not enjoy Vickers’s performance.)
The net joy of this new recording is that Skelton, now a Grimes of considerable experience and range, has found in his vocalisation of the role a well‑judged mixture of obsessive professional (sometimes rough) fisherman and troubled, confused and persecuted outsider. He wants to do what he wants and will fight for it, a passion not a neurosis. The internal monologues (if I may call them such) – the so-called one‑note aria, ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, and the hope for a permanent relationship with Ellen, ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’ – are neither sentimentalised nor indulged, but obviously essential outpourings from Grimes’s soul at particular emotional moments. And, as you might expect, there is plenty of power where it is needed in the
24 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2020