Britten: Peter Grimes

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Britten
WORKS: Peter Grimes
PERFORMER: Peter Pears, Heather Harper, Bryan Drake, Elizabeth Bainbridge, Ann Robson, Owen Brannigan, David Bowman, Gregory Dempsey; Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London SO/Benjamin Britten; dir. Joan Cross (TV, 1969)
CATALOGUE NO: 074 3261

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Has television ever treated opera as a serious artform, worth exploring and developing? Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the BBC made some noble attempts, especially under the legendary John Culshaw as Head of Music – resulting, among many other archive-bound treasures, in these groundbreaking, frequently stunning Benjamin Britten collaborations.

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Despite the success of the televised Budd (see p86), Britten’s dislike of two-studio recording stalled a proposed Grimes until Culshaw – a determined advocate of live performance on television (contrary to his policy as a producer at Decca) – created a single-studio shoot at Snape Maltings. Now Britten conducted, even darker and more powerfully than on his audio recording. The staging, though, by Joan Cross, the first Ellen, is constrained by the unit set and short on vigour, in the pub for example. Smaller roles are mostly excellent, notably Elizabeth Bainbridge’s genial Auntie, her distinguished Nieces, David Bowman’s insouciant Ned Keene and Gregory Dempsey’s ringing Boles. Heather Harper, in superb voice, is a deeply moving Ellen; but Bryan Drake’s Balstrode, though bluffly sung, lacks the necessary humane depth. And Peter Pears is no longer the shaggy, hollow-eyed ruffian of 1945 premiere photos. It’s still a riveting, insightful performance – Grimes almost relishing the pub uproar, for instance – but genteelly middle-aged of voice and aspect. Unmissable, nevertheless. Michael Scott Rohan.