Notes and Editorial Reviews
Review of EMI 54832
This is, on the whole, an inspired performance in a superbly lifelike recording, adding to the happy history of the work on disc, which seems inexorably linked with Covent Garden forces. The extracts made under Goodall in 1948 but not issued until many years later used the ROH Orchestra and Chorus. (Incidentally these will shortly reappear on EMI's British Composers series.) They preserve performances by Joan Cross and Peter Pears of Ellen and Grimes caught only three years after the premiere—an essential historical document. So is the 1958 set under the composer's baton (Decca), with Pears again in the title-role, which, in one sense, will never be superseded. That featured a cast then current at Covent
Garden. In 1978 the next generation of Grimes interpreters at the Royal Opera, with the controversial Jon Vickers as Grimes, recorded the piece—with tremendous conviction under Sir Colin Davis's committed direction, for Philips.
Now a fourth generation of singers maintains this line of excellence under another convinced advocate of Britten—Bernard Haitink. As with Davis, Haitink makes us aware of the universal nature of Britten's masterpiece—one which Goodall apparently never felt the composer equalled (as John Lucas reveals in his recent biography of the conductor; Julia MacRae Books: 1993). Even more than Britten and Davis, Haitink uncovers the raw nerve-ends of the music, its astonishing and ongoing vigour shading into violence—try the Storm Interlude—while giving full measure to its lyrical poetry, although like Davis, he sometimes yields to a penchant for slow speeds that the composer entirely avoids. Helped by the clarity and consistency of Simon Woods's production, Haitink makes us aware anew, sometimes for the first time, how unerringly Britten moves from one scene, one mood to another, how he effortlessly and rewardingly gives almost every principal a short or longer solo in which to create a character, show his or her wares, while keeping each within the framework of a through-composed drama.
When the work was given, 18 months ago, for the first time in Munich, the public was amazed at the score's power to grip and overwhelm an audience, make it catch its united breath. That kind of international recognition is underlined here by a performance from a non-British conductor who is aware at once of its British roots yet also connects it with Verdi (the concertato in Act 2 especially), Berg (the dance music heard off-stage in Act 3) and many others, all realized with the utmost security of execution. Haitink's own orchestra at Covent Garden is at least the equal of their predecessors. As so vividly and specifically recorded, they meet Britten's exigent demands with confident articulation. The chorus sing with precision and force, nowhere more so than in the famous 'hunt' for Grimes which is as electrifying as it should be.
The forward recording of the voices and the excellence all round of the diction points up the many felicities and insights of Montague Slater's libretto often overlooked or unheard in the theatre. With a score before you, you can also judge again the aptness of the word setting and, in Anthony Rolfe Johnson's account of the title-role, his innate way with a text, all the more remarkable when he has yet to sing the part on stage (to be rectified, thrice over, next year). A Britten interpreter of long standing, he phrases the music and also interprets it with just the right emphases, nowhere more so than ''In dreams'' and in the moving death scene. Returning to Vickers's reading, I found it now, for all its elemental force, irritatingly mannered, especially in the Bear and Pleaiades solo which Rolfe Johnson takes much more simply, but here, and elsewhere, Pears remains supreme in terms of line and tonal clarity. Rolfe Johnson shirks nothing in the taxing role but sometimes his high As and B flats are more strenuously achieved than they should be. This is a small reservation in a performance that combines, perhaps more successfully than either Pears or Vickers, the poetic outsider with the rough fisherman—the scene in Grimes's hut catches both sides to perfection.
There can be no reservations of any kind about Felicity Lott's Ellen, surely her greatest performance yet on disc. Nothing held back, she takes command of the first scene of Act 2, catching both the intense and resposeful sides of Ellen's nature. Ideal diction married to golden tone make both ''Glitter of waves'', and later the Embroidery aria, thoroughly satisfying in both vocal and interpretative terms—and she gives just the right sense of regret to ''Were we mistaken?''. This the portrait of a determined, loving woman who knows her mind but is defeated by circumstances beyond her control and by an unruly partner: her final attempt to communicate with Peter is poignant indeed. Thomas Allen, Davis's witty Ned Keene, is no less successful as Balstrode—his cantabile solo in the Boar scene is particularly well phrased; so are his final words of advice to Grimes. But his rivals on the alternative sets are just as good, in their varying ways. Young Simon Keenlyside takes over Ned Keene and sings him with even more point than Allen and Evans (Decca).
Sarah Walker's busybody, acute Mrs Sedley is as good as any, but Patricia Payne's intrusive vibrato makes her Auntie too unsteady in comparison with the contraltos on the other versions. Stuart Kale's hectoring Boles contrasts nicely with Neil Jenkins's benign Rector complete with 'refained' vowels. Stafford Dean's jovial Swallow slightly lacks the presence of such formidable predecessors as Branningan (Decca) and Forbes Robinson (Philips).
The production follows Decca in simulating a stage performance, something Philips largely eschewed; it is here done with unobtrusive care (but the boy's frightened scream as he falls to his death should have been more prominent). As an interpretation I could not say that this supersedes its well-tried predecessors, but it is quite their equal with Haitink as its hero. As a recording it is of demonstration standard in every respect, and that should tip the balance in its favour for anyone coming to the work anew on disc.'
-- Alan Blyth, Gramophone [7/1993]
Works on This Recording
Peter Grimes, Op. 33 by Benjamin Britten
Patricia Payne (Mezzo Soprano),
Felicity Lott (Soprano),
Stuart Kale (Tenor),
Simon Keenlyside (Baritone),
David Wilson-Johnson (Baritone),
Christopher Lackner (Baritone),
Richard Hazell (Bass),
Gillian Webster (Soprano),
Tom Cregan (Tenor),
Karen Robertson (Soprano),
Christopher Keyte (Bass),
John Winfield (Tenor),
Donaldson Bell (Baritone),
Jonathan Fisher (Baritone),
Michael Skinner (Drum),
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Tenor),
Thomas Allen (Baritone),
Maria Bovino (Soprano),
Neil Jenkins (Tenor),
Sarah Walker (Mezzo Soprano),
Stafford Dean (Bass)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1944-1945; England
Date of Recording: 06/1992
Venue: Watford Town Hall, London
Length: 144 Minutes 41 Secs.
Notes: Composition written: England (1944 - 1945).
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