22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
There have been many productions of Grimes around the world and a good few recordings made since this first one was committed to disc nearly half a century ago. From our perspective in the 21st Century it is hard to recall the huge impact made by the first production at Sadlers' Wells in 1946 and by this recording just a decade or so later. It's now easier to see the antecedents and ancestors of the piece - Verdi, Mahler, even Mozart. At the time it seemed a really revolutionary piece, not only for British but also for worldwide opera.
The recording, too, was something new. This was the first time that John Culshaw and his Decca team had fully implemented their ideas for making a real production out of a stereo opera recording. The original booklet proudly showed the grid laid out on the floor that allowed singers to move about the imaginary set as they would in a real theatrical production. And the recorded sound was absolutely state-of-the-art for its time, then still in the early days of stereo. These digital transfers still shine almost as brightly as any of the more modern recordings.
The performance itself has rightly become a classic. The composer conducting his own work, of course, has a special authenticity. And more. Britten, unlike many conducting composers, was a highly professional, totally convincing and usually revelatory conductor - of other composers' works as well as his own. So it is here. Working with an opera house chorus and orchestra (Covent Garden), there is still something of the `shock of the new' about this performance. The drama of the interludes - particularly the Passacaglia and the one before the final scene which is not included in the concert set - has enormous impact and, in these two cases, is probably more moving than any. The reprise of the Dawn Interlude at the end of the opera as the villagers return to their work as though nothing has happened, closing over the incident as disinterestedly as the sea closes over Grimes himself, carries true tragic weight. And, with its pp ending, seems to look forward to another seascape at the end of Britten's final opera, Death in Venice.
Grimes was, of course, the first of Britten's great operatic gifts to his lover and muse, Peter Pears. The role is written for that specific voice and it sits inimitably within its range and capabilities. Whether it's the dreamy head-tones of the `Great Bear and Pleiades', the motivically vital and dramatic plunge of `God have mercy upon you', the great yearning leap of a ninth on `What harbour shelters peace' or the highs and lows of the mad scene (melodic and emotional), the phrases sit perfectly and naturally in the voice. Pears sings the role as no other tenor could and it remains the yardstick for all future performances. If I have a hesitation, it is over the characterisation of Grimes. Pears just seems a little urbane and sophisticated for this uncouth, unsophisticated, violent outsider (albeit one with dreams). Vickers sits at the opposite pole in a performance Britten was said to have hated: he is a raw brute of a man, aurally on disc as much as physically in the theatre. It is a great performance, too - proof that the role is more than big enough to take radically different interpretations. If you want another great reading that sits somewhere between the two, then Langridge on the Hickox discs is probably your man.
As for the rest, this recording was made before all parts in Britten recordings were reserved for the Aldeburgh coterie. Ellen and Balstrode are both taken from Decca's roster of American singers. Both are more than adequate, but probably bettered elsewhere - Heather Harper is arguably the finest Ellen on disc; sadly the best Balstrode in my experience, Norman Bailey, should have been on the first Davis recording but was indisposed at the time. Owen Brannigan (who was a member of the coterie) is probably the finest Swallow on disc. For the rest of the wonderful gallery of Borough villagers, it's a matter of swings and roundabouts between the various recordings.
Nevertheless, this remains a classic recording, even down to the evocative photograph from the original LP album. The touchstone for your choice of recording is probably the singer playing the title role where the choice lies between Pears, Vickers and Langridge. But then again, Haitink on EMI also provides a highly memorable performance, more international and mainstream in outlook, despite a slightly weaker Grimes in Rolfe-Johnson. Ah, decisions, decisions!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Britten's centenary will be over in about ten weeks, so it was time overdue to rectify a major omission from my opera collection, his masterpiece Peter Grimes. This is BB's own performance of the work, with Pears in the title role, and that is what makes this issue a unique historical monument, intending no disparagement of other fine versions. The sound has been remastered, and the remastering seems to have been particularly well done. The singers all perform well, although I don't suppose I could award special commendations to them. Pears has the kind of authority that forbids question; and of the other two main roles I thought James Pease outstanding as Balstrode and Claire Watson as Ellen sweet-toned but with a little too much tremolo for my own taste. Above all, this is an opera, a drama. It is not `absolute' music but is as much a drama as any stage play. It is also by one of the most distinctive composers of the 20th century, and its swiftness of movement and vivid orchestral effects are realised here in a way that will be hard for any later director to emulate. The Royal Opera House orchestra distinguish themselves with the sensitivity of their appreciation of Britten's special orchestral sound. Above all the characterisation of the participants, the feature that more than any other makes Peter Grimes the wonder that it is, is memorable and convincing. I couldn't see Britten tolerating anything short of that.
What do you think this opera is about? There is a very interesting and thoughtful liner essay by Philip Brett, but I think he makes a meal of it. To me, Peter Grimes is the tragedy of a man who is totally self-concerned. In the original poem by Crabbe, the ur-basis for Montagu Slater's libretto, he is a brute and a thug. The Grimes we find here has the soul of a poet, to judge by his long dreamy solos. There's more to him than soul, sad to say. He has a short fuse, short enough for him to strike his devoted Ellen, whom he had hoped to marry, when she tells him their relationship has failed. He is not sadistic with his apprentice, but he is obviously a bit rough all the same, not from malice but from impatience to take what he perceives as an opportunity to make money and thereby sweep away the criticisms he gets from his fellow citizens of the Borough. There is never any expression of affection for Ellen, she is just to be an adjunct to his career. As for his apprentices, they are just there to do what he tells them, and when in the process one dies from thirst while sailing out of reach of land, that does not say much for Peter's exercise of a duty of care. His basic problem is one that he fails totally to recognise, although the worldly-wise Balstrode understands it when he advises Peter to go to sea and get away from the Borough. In any such closed and static community you stand outside its culture and ethos at your peril. Such a community will take any opportunity to criminalise the nonconformist, and Peter was asking for what he got from the suspicious and resentful citizenry of the Borough. It would not have been different if he had caught enough fish to feed all East Anglia. Balstrode knew that. There is a Greek-tragedy-model chorus that remarks near the end
Who holds himself apart
Lets his pride rise.
Him who despises us
To my mind, there is no more need to try to `universalise' Peter's tragedy than there is to do that with Hamlet's. Obviously, any of us is influenced deeply by the society he or she grew up in, but to understand this marvellous musical drama we are better without 1960's-style attempts to shift the burden of individual responsibility on to society generally, proclaiming that `we are all guilty' and such like. There is no real `lesson to be learned' either in my own opinion, because we all knew it to start with. Here we have a special version of the story acted out with incomparable vividness and subtlety, told through the medium of a bewitching and audacious musical style. What might we not give to hear any of Handel's operas directed by its composer? I'm not sure Handel ever had as good a libretto to work on as this.