Thursday 29 August 2013

Peter Grimes from Aldeburgh

Peter Grimes: SIGCD348
Whatever its virtues (and they are not inconsiderable) this recording will be for ever associated with the performances of Peter Grimes on the beach in Aldeburgh in June 2013. This recording, made at concert performances June this year, was used as the basis for the live performances on the beach. With remarkable speed the recording has been used on CD. The cast is strong, with Alan Oke in the title role with Giselle Allen, David Kempster, Gaynor Keeble, Alexandra Hutton, Charmian Bedford, Robert Murray, Henry Waddington, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Gillett, Charles Rice and Stephen Richardson, with Steuart Bedford conducting the chorus of Opera North, the chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Britten-Pears Orchestra.

I never heard Peter Pears as Grimes live, for my generation the Peter Grimes was the great dramatic tenor Jon Vickers. His visionary and dramatic account of the role was a radically different interpretation to that of Pears, which was evidently not liked by Britten. Subsequent tenors such as Philip Langridge reclaimed the role for the lyric tenor.

Oke's Grimes is very much in the lyric tradition but he is neither aggressive ogre nor visionary. Instead he comes over as an ordinary man, albeit one touched with poetry. Oke's sings the prologue with the wonderful bleached tone of a man at the end of his tether. And the two main solo moments are finely done. The soliloquy in the pub in act one is poetic, very inward and thoughtful. The monologue on the beach in act three is finely and poetically done with a lovely feeling for the combination of words and music;. in fact there is something of Pears in Oke's timbre.

But Oke's performance is very much one of primus inter pares, rather than a great bravura solo; there are moments of great strength and of great poetry but they are woven into a performance which balances with other cast members. And one of the strengths of this recording is the depth of the casting, the strength of the ensemble and the sheer vividness of the character roles in the Borough. This is supported by a strongly characterised orchestral contribution under Steuart Bedford's direction.

Reading reviews of the live performances on which this recording is based, Giselle Allen's Ellen Orford came in for much approbation with comments such as anguished. Allen's Ellen Orford is undoubtedly finely sung with a great feeling of expressive sympathy and a certain underlying strength. Whilst Ellen Orford is essentially a lyric role, it was written for a dramatic soprano and Allen brings a core of really strength and purpose to the role. She is a strong participant in the ensembles. That in act two, 'We planned that there lives' is finely and powerfully done. Her quartet with Auntie (Gaynor Keeble) and the two nieces (Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford) is one of the highlights of the disc. But in the solo moments, Giselle Allen's voice seems to suffer under pressure and there is an instability about the embroidery aria which mars things for me, she is expressive but there is just not enough core to the voice for me. The scene with Grimes and Ellen Orford in act two, 'This unrelenting work' is really powerful stuff, and there is a great strength of tone and purpose from each of them, though with hints of instability on Allen's part.

David Kempster is a resonant, robust Bulstrode, though Kempster gives the character a degree of suaveness, perhaps owing to the fine grain of his singing. There is certainly little hint of bluffness and roughness that the character needs. That said, his contribution to 'Live, and let live' is wonderfully resonant and firm.

The remaining roles are all highly characterised and strongly sung. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a vivid Mrs Sedley, making every word count. With Charles Rice as a lively Ned Keene and Gaynor Keeble as a warm toned Auntie. I could have wished for more sense of line from Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford as the nieces, but they are still characterful. Robert Murray is a brilliant voiced and vivid Bob Boles.

Almost a stronger character is the orchestra itself, Steuart Bedford brings out the full drama of the sea interludes but the orchestra also contributes to the vividly delineated scenes throughout the opera. And the way each sea interlude emerges from the operatic texture of the previous scene is just magical.

This is not my ideal Peter Grimes, I have too much attachment to Jon Vickers, Heather Harper and others. But this is strong ensemble performance, you get a real sense of the character of borough both the amusing vignettes and the more threatening moments. The chorus contributes to this, and there are some nicely characterful scenes by the harbour, which sound like Albert Herring but with nastier undertones. And there is a great power and anger in the storm chorus.

The CD booklet includes a fascinating article which explains the changes that Britten and his librettists made to change Crabbe's unsympathetic Peter Grimes into the more sympathetic anti-hero of the opera. The booklet also includes full text, through rather frustratingly the libretto does not have track cue numbers.

Peter Grimes is one of those operas where you probably want to to accumulate a number of different performances, but if I just had this CD then I would be well content.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Peter Grimes
Peter Grimes - Alan Oke (tenor)
Ellen Orford - Giselle Allen (soprano)
Captain Balstrode - David Kempster (baritone)
Auntie - Gaynor Keeble (mezzo-soprano)
First Niece - Alexandra Hutton (soprano)
Second Niece - Charmian Bedford (soprano)
Bob Boles - Robert Murray (tenor)
Swallow - Henry Waddington (baritone)
Mrs Sedley - Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Rev. Horace Adams - Christopher Gillett (tenor)
Ned Keene - Charles Rice(baritone)
Hobson - Stephen Richardson (baritone)
Chorus of Opera North
Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Britten-Pears Orchestra
Steuard Bedford (conductor)
Recorded live at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 7 & 9 June 2013

Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes - Alan Oke, Steuart Bedford; SIGCD348
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 29 2013
Rating: 4.5
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