Notes and Editorial Reviews
Benjamin Britten, cond; Peter Pears (
); Claire Watson (
); James Pease (
); Jean Watson (
); Raymond Nilsson (
); Owen Brannigan (
); Geraint Evans (
); Royal Opera House O & Ch, Covent Garden
ALTO ALC 2008 (2 CDs: 143: 03)
This set comes to you courtesy of European copyright laws that allow the public domaining (have I coined a verb?) of recordings after 50 years. Even though Decca’s excellent pioneering venture is still out there in vivid stereo, Alto has piggybacked it with this cheaper one, presumably less expensive because it includes no libretto. Did I detect just the slightest hint of audio fuzz in some loud vocal passages? Yes. I assume this is because Alto did not have access to the master tape but, given the budget price, some will consider it to be only a minor nuisance and, otherwise, I found the differences between the two sets minimal.
Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and bearing a dedication to the conductor’s wife and the foundation named after her,
received its successful premiere in London in 1945. The opera deals with the ambitious, somewhat paranoid fisherman Peter Grimes, an outsider who hopes to buy the respect of his fellow villagers by being the most successful fisherman there. As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies, and the residents of the fishing village react to Grimes in a variety of ways, ranging from suspicious hostility to semi-friendly tolerance to wary affection. Unfortunately, Grimes’s oblivious brutality and obsessive drive to fish the sea dry cause him to unintentionally kill his apprentices and eventually bring about his suicide.
With the Haitink EMI set apparently reduced to download status, that leaves this one with two strong competitors, led by Sir Colin Davis (Philips) and Richard Hickox (Chandos). The Britten can hold its own with the more recent ones and has the original Grimes, Peter Pears, in the title role. In 1958, he could still put across Grimes’s curious combination of introspection, obsessiveness, and anger. On the Hickox recording, the late Philip Langridge, the possessor of a stronger voice, offers a similar Grimes. The Grimes of the Davis set is Jon Vickers, an equally introspective but more explosive, dangerous protagonist. It is said that Britten disapproved of the way Vickers sang the role, and his opinion deserves respect. Some of this could possibly be due merely to the Pears-Britten relationship, but Britten may have found Vickers unsympathetic because of the feeling of suppressed rage, the undercurrent of danger, that he produced and, possibly, that he was an arbitrary, willful performer who went his own way, changing the text or even omitting part of his music on a few occasions (at least on the Philips recording). Yet, for all that, the performance works on his terms, which is why he was the champion Grimes of his time. Whatever one’s reaction to him, he’s a
The other roles are well cast on all three sets. The Decca/Alto and the Chandos are more “staged” than the Philips. For example, we are made aware of the crowd present at the inquest dealing with the death of Grimes’s first apprentice. The Philips production doesn’t try as hard to give the listener a soundstage.
The fact that the opera is in English does not mean that the listener can understand every word—for the unfamiliar listener, a libretto is recommended. Although it has appropriate annotations, Alto does not provide one. I suppose someone who had the Chandos or Philips set and desired this one, as well, could use their librettos—but, really, if you already own the Chandos or the Philips, why would you need this one unless having a composer-conducted recording is important to you? For me, the result of the “race” between Britten, Davis, and Hickox is a near photo-finish. Anyone who saw Vickers perform the role may already have the Philips and, if you want to hear one of the most charismatic singers of his time in one of his famous roles, the Philips is recommended. For those who are coming to the opera for the first time, I recommend the Chandos or the Britten in its Decca issue (because of the libretto). For someone who already owns one or both of the others and must have another, the Alto does the job. If I had to live with one of them (I have all three), I’d settle for the Chandos as the best all-around recording, but nobody will go wrong with the Philips or the Decca or, for that matter, the Alto.
FANFARE: James Miller
Works on This Recording
Peter Grimes, Op. 33 by Benjamin Britten
Raymond Nilsson (Tenor),
Jean Watson (Alto),
James Pease (Baritone),
Peter Pears (Tenor),
Claire Watson (Soprano),
Owen Brannigan (Bass),
Geraint Evans (Baritone)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1944-1945; England
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