Britten: Peter Grimes
In the year of the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, in an unseasonably chill and squally June, an unprecedented event took place on the beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Peter Grimes, the British composer’s greatest opera, completed and premiered in 1945, was staged on the shingle as part of the Festival. It was, by all accounts, a memorable if wind-blown production. Townsfolk and tourists seemed riveted even by dress rehearsals, as they passed the shore with their fish and chips: the voices certainly refused to be drowned.
This recording was made live, safely inside Snape Maltings, just a few days before the open-air performance. It captures to a nicety the judicious, steady and powerful pacing of the conductor, Steuart Bedford, who has the sea-swell of the work deep in his bones. The close recording of the excellent Britten-Pears Orchestra flings us into the eye of the storm. And even the calmer Sea Interludes seem to have savagery at their heart. There is something sinister in the undertow of the glittering waves of ‘Sunday Morning’; and the Passacaglia between Acts Two and Three is gripping in its slowly amassed tension. Bedford close-focuses the anger of this score, the blade of its ‘branding iron and knife’.
The cast is led by Alan Oke – a baritone before he was a tenor – and his is a strong, ballasted performance, less purely plangent than many, but deeply moving in its simple strength and keen imagination. Giselle Allen is a feisty Ellen Orford, with a fearless, flaring energy in the upper range of her soprano. And this Balstrode is uncompromisingly one to ‘live and let live’, in David Kempster’s resonant and noble baritone voice.
There’s much to relish throughout this hand-picked cast: particularly in Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s vivid yet uncaricatured Mrs Sedley, in Stephen Richardson’s Hobson, and in Robert Murray’s Bob Boles, his tenor incarnating so much of the Borough’s own hysterical fear.
The youthful enthusiasm and commitment of the Britten-Pears Orchestra is matched by this chorus, a high-fibre mix of 16 young singers from the Guildhall School (including some who will surely be cast in future productions of this opera) – and the lusty, well-focused voices of the Chorus of Opera North.
Anyone unable to catch the cinema relays of the live event, will not be let down by the pictures created for the mind’s eye in this recording. And those who have seen the production for themselves, either on the shingle or the silver screen, will find this an invaluable documentary resource and aide-memoire.