This new recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes was recorded from semi-staged performances in the Grieghallen in Bergen in November last year. It’s very good indeed. Of course, there are many good audio and video recordings of this piece going back to the composer’s own version with Peter Pears in the title role; recorded in 1959 and many fine singers have recorded the title role. To stand out from the field, a new recording needs an outstanding Grimes and in Stuart Skelton this version has one. He manages to encompass both the brutal, gritty side of Grimes as well as the more ethereal side. Pears did the latter brilliantly but could never quite manage the grit. Vickers, who practically owned the role in the 1970s, was brutal but didn’t have the voice or the stage skills to bring out the gentler side. Perhaps the first person to really portray the full complexity of the character was the late Philip Langridge and there’s much about Skelton’s portrayal that reminds one of him. It shades toward the delicate most of the time with some lovely singing in “Now the Great Bear” and in the mad scene. But when Skelton needs to be brutal he’s downright scary.
The second thing a great Peter Grimes needs is a really fine orchestra and chorus and a conductor who can handle them. The Bergen Philharmonic and Edward Gardner excel here with some spectacularly incisive playing while also being able to get the brooding mood of passages like Interlude IV right. The chorus; an amalgam of the Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor and the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, are pretty decent but can’t quite manage the wide variety of moods and the sheer attack needed as well as, say, the choruses at the Met or the COC.
The performances of the other principals are generally very good. Roderick Williams is Balstrode and it’s a delicate, almost intellectual, interpretation that definitely sets Balstrode apart from the people of the Borough and is a marked contrast to the much bluffer approach taken by Owen Brannigan and others. Erin Wall sings Ellen Orford with some subtlety and skill. She has the measure of the character and the only weakness is some steeliness in the upper register on some of the awkwardly high sections. To be fair though, the only Ellen I’ve heard sound ideal in those passages was Heather Harper which is setting the bar very high. The rest of the cast are mostly British and have the Britten idiom in their bones. Diction is excellent and although the recording comes with a full text I didn’t need it at all.
One of the best features of this recording is the sound engineering. It’s Chandos at their finest. It’s vivid, wide in dynamic range and just plain exciting to listen to. The commercial release is dual format SACD and 24 bit stereo but even the 16 bit pre-release review copy is superb. For those with SACD capability this could well be a demonstration disk. Minor reservations about the chorus aside, this is a highly recommendable release.
Catalogue number: Chandos CHSA5250(2)
This review first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Opera Canada