Regular readers will know I’m something of a Peter Grimes completist so I was interested to get my hands on a recording previously unheard by me (one of only two such!). It’s a 1992 recording made in Watford Town Hall and, as far as I know, was not made in conjunction with a stage run. The Grimes is Anthony Rolfe Johnson with Thomas Allen as Balstrode and Felicity Lott as Ellen Orford. There’s also a young Simon Keenleyside as Ned Keene. Bernard Haitink conducts with Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.
It’s very good so let’s talk about how it stands up to the formidable competition. Rolfe Johnson is a Grimes closer to the Pears mode than Vickers. He’s at his best in the more ethereal stuff lioke “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” and the mad scene. It’s lovely elegant singing but I don’t think he captures the other side of Grimes; the brutal side, as effectively as Skelton or, best of all, Langridge. Thomas Allen is a distinctive Balstrode. He’s consistently excellent and best of all in the final act. The duet with Lott that follows “Embroidery in Childhood” is quite lovely. Lott also duets well with Rolfe Johnson in the Act 1 “The truth – the pity”. This brings out the best in Lott who is a very musical and ethereal (that word again) Ellen lacking perhaps the fullness of Heather Harper or the steel of Erin Wall. It works in it’s own right and, perhaps excepting Harper, I haven’t heard an Ellen who is absolutely ideal. Perhaps it’s one of those roles that just demands too many contradictory qualities as, of course, Grimes does but there, somehow, Langridge managed it.
Haitink’s conducting is well paced and he gets great intensity from the orchestra, especially in the interludes. The chorus is excellent too though perhaps not as incisive as on the Met video. The recording quality is excellent for a 1990s CD; probably up there with the Chandos recording with Langridge, but not quite matching the extra detail and bite of Chandos’ SACD version from Bergen.
So if one had to choose one audio recording of Peter Grimes (a silly idea really) which one to pick? The composer’s own recording of course is a reference standard though, for me, Peter Pears was never ideal as Grimes and certainly not by the time the recording was made in 1969. Vickers take on Grimes is unique and it’s fully reflected in Colin Davis’ 1978 recording. For some people it’s the definitive Grimes. If I may be forgiven for recycling a joke I first made years ago, for me it’s all Great Bear and no Pleiades. I think Langridge is the finest Grimes ever and it’s tempting to pick his 1995 recording with Richard Hickox which is well recorded and has an excellent supporting cast. If the ultimate in recording quality doesn’t matter so much to you this is the one to go for. Some people, and not just audiophiles, may prefer the later Chandos SACD recording made in Bergen with Stuart Skelton and Erin Wall with Edward Gardner conducting. This also features a very individual Balstrode in Rod Williams.
Or you can take your pick from the seven available video recordings.
Catalogue number: EMI Classics 915620