My parents liked Britten’s music, and I was brought up learning and loving every detail of the refinement and wit Peter Pears brought to the Folk Songs, the heroism of his St Nicholas, above all the tortured otherworldliness of Peter Grimes. Pears and Britten were together for 40 years – they began the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival, and developed an unsurpassable recital partnership. Pears’s sound doesn’t please everyone, but his artistry is indisputable: Britten loved his conveying ‘every nuance, subtle and never overdone’. It was his voice that inspired Britten to compose opera, and his spirituality and erudition that contributed so much to works like the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. He would have had a career without Britten – he was a compelling and successful operatic performer long before Peter Grimes – but without Pears we wouldn’t have some of the finest works ever written for tenor. His art wasn’t just about Britten, of course – Klemperer’s St Matthew Passion recording, so unfashionable these days, is dominated (but never overwhelmed) by Pears’s Evangelist. And he loved to sing Dowland, whose songs, he said, were ‘coloured with a gentle silvery sadness’ – a telling image, that.
In his own words: ‘Peter Grimes is not the most heroic title-role in all opera. He is no Don Giovanni or Otello, and the more glamour is applied to his presentation the further you get from what the composer wanted.’
Greatest recording: Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes Decca 475 7713 (3 discs)