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Peter Grimes: the best recordings of Britten's famous opera

Daniel Jaffé fishes out the finest recordings of Britten’s deeply unsettling but utterly gripping opera, Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes opera
Published: March 24, 2022 at 11:33 am

Before its premiere on the night of 7 June 1945, the auspices were not good. Many of the singers at London’s Sadler’s Wells Opera Company were in mutinous mood, outraged that its first post-war production should be a ‘cacophonous’ work about a sociopathic fisherman apparently guilty of murdering his young apprentices.

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Yet the opening night of Peter Grimes in the capital was a sensation: Britten’s exceptional dramatic sense, depicting his characters with deft economy while vividly evoking the austere beauty of the Suffolk coast where the action takes place, wowed critics and audiences. Over the next three years Peter Grimes was staged by more than a dozen opera houses across Europe, as well as in the United States and Australia. English opera had never enjoyed such success since Henry Purcell over two and a half centuries earlier. Today Grimes continues to hold a firm place in the international repertory, its tale of a brutal society breeding brutal men still disturbingly relevant

The best recordings of Peter Grimes

Peter Pears, Claire Watson etc; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra (1958)

Decca 475 7713

Even with many other complete or near-complete alternatives now available on CD alone, this first complete recording remains the best. Peter Pears, in the title role written for him, is vocally at home whether singing the lyrical ‘Great Bear’ aria or expressing anger, if not quite as youthful sounding as in the 1940s (Grimes fans will want the recently reissued extracts Pears recorded in 1948 with the original Ellen Orford, Joan Cross).

The 1958 cast is near faultless: Owen Brannigan, a fellow veteran of the 1945 premiere, sings the pompous lawyer Swallow, Geraint Evans brings a light touch to the ‘quack’ apothecary Ned Keene, and James Pease is outstanding as a sturdy Balstrode. Nearly the entire cast and orchestra – a notable exception being Claire Watson’s sympathetic Ellen Orford – had been steeped in the opera just months earlier, taking part in the Royal Opera production conducted by Rafael Kubelík. Decca’s John Culshaw heightened this ‘live’ quality in the studio by having the singers not stand immovably by their microphones but interacting and moving about the stage to dramatic effect: his ulterior motive was to exploit the potential of stereo in this pioneering and still superb-sounding recording. With Britten himself conducting, the drama flows compellingly and purposefully.

Colin Davis (conductor)

Jon Vickers, Heather Harper etc; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra (1978)

Decca 478 2669

Of Sir Colin Davis’s two recordings, this earlier version is a classic. Above all it captures Jon Vickers’s interpretation of Grimes – rough voiced and brutal, yet at times expressing tenderness and pain, most movingly in his final mad scene. However, Vickers took liberties with the text, amending several lines. Sir Colin’s more recent LSO Live recording of 2004 (with a slimmed-down LSO chorus) offers a more orthodox and fine performance: sadly its Grimes, Glenn Winslade, sounds too tame and reasonable even in the mad scene. Wrong-headed though Vickers’s approach may seem (Britten hated it), his portrayal, partnered with Heather Harper’s strongly characterised Ellen Orford, has drawn many listeners to Britten’s masterpiece.

Richard Hickox (conductor)

Philip Langridge, Janice Watson etc; London Symphony Chorus; City of London Sinfonia (1995)

Chandos CHAN 9447(2)

The main reason to get this recording, well-conducted by Richard Hickox, is for Philip Langridge’s fiery Grimes, surely the best all-round interpretation since Pears’s own (some would say of all time). A fine supporting cast includes Alan Opie’s stage-seasoned Balstrode and Janice Watson’s tender Ellen Orford. But the recording is hampered by the unoperatic sounding LSO Chorus – and not only because its huge force makes the village church scene sound like a cathedral service. Much of the point of Grimes is how several well-delineated individuals meld together at ‘crisis’ moments into a potentially murderous mob, a point lost when the crowd sounds like a well-disciplined choral society ready to perform Belshazzar’s Feast rather than an opera.

Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

Anthony Dean Griffey, Vivian Tierney, Steven Page etc; Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra (2000)

Glyndebourne GFOCD 008-00

Taped live over several performances, this recording has both advantages and some disadvantages that include noisy scenery changes. The tenor Anthony Dean Griffey has since built his reputation singing Grimes but here is a relatively early outing (his first?) in the role. Griffey, more than most tenors since Pears, seems ideally equipped vocally to perform the role, with both an attractive lyricism and moments of raw fury. He is joined by an adequate cast, Vivian Tierney as Ellen Orford sounding sweetly lyrical if rather a wet flannel. But Wigglesworth’s conducting, for all the sonic beauty of the London Philharmonic’s playing, often sounds cautious compared to Davis or Haitink, let alone Britten’s vibrant sweep.

Steuart Bedford

Alan Oke, Giselle Allen, The Chorus of Opera North, Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama; Britten-Pears Orchestra

Who can turn skies back?’ demands Peter Grimes. Well, the inventive film director, for one, who cleverly grafts extra moody Suffolk cloudscapes into this already unique performance, staged live to a pre-recorded orchestral track on Aldeburgh beach in 2013.

Undoubtedly the open-air acoustic and omnipresent head-mics create a mildly unnatural effect, slightly underpowering moments like Act I’s great cry of ‘Home!’; but this is still a marvellously involving performance.

Michael Scott Rohan awarded this recording the full five stars and you can read his full review here

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We named Peter Grimes one of the greatest operas of all time

Authors

daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.

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