The ur Grimes

In 1969 the BBC’s new Director of Music and recording producer of genius, John Culshaw, contrived to align the heavens to permit the recording and broadcast for television of Britten’s Peter Grimes with Peter Pears in the title role and Britten conducting. What’s more it was recorded on a stage set (at The Maltings) with the orchestra in the same room as the singers who sang ‘live’. So, unusually for the time there was neither a double studio set up nor a studio audio recording that was lip synched to the stage performance. There’s a great little essay in the DVD booklet that explains how this all came to pass.

All that said, it’s a 1969 TV broadcast and I expected it to be of largely historic interest. I didn’t expect to get completely sucked in which is what happened. The design and production is very literal. The Boar is a pub. Grimes’ hut is a hut and so on. The people of the Borough are dressed in a range of working class clothes of sometime in the 19th century. They don’t look like a flock of crows on a telephone wire. Oddly, this makes their conformity all the more telling. The direction is a collaboration between Joan Cross who, we are told, directed the singers and Brian Large (who must have been about twelve at the time) who directed the cameras. As you would expect for a 1969 TV production there are lots of close ups which is fine as there was no “house view” here. The orchestral interludes are played out to either abstract patterns (which sometimes look a bit like those gel slides popular in discos of the period) and continuity shots. We don’t see the orchestra or, worse, a heavily perspiring conductor. It’s all straightforward but effective. There are some interesting interpretative nuances. For example in the storm scene in the pub I’ve never seen Grimes’ otherness so well brought out. Also, it’s absolutely starkly clear that Ellen and Balstrode have given up on Peter during Act 2 Scene 1 but he persists most compellingly in his hope until the ‘prentice falls at the end of the act. Pears’ reading of the part at this point is so hopeful that I had to go back and check that the bit where he accuses the boy of betraying him hadn’t been cut.

The performances are mostly strong. Pears’ Grimes is what it is. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrical passages like “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” are gorgeous. It’s not totally convincing though. When he punches Ellen it comes out of nowhere. This dreamy, haunted Grimes just doesn’t have the violent side that the Borough and, ultimately Ellen, see. Heather Harper’s Ellen is gorgeous. She sounds younger and sweeter than in the later Vickers recording. Bryan Drake’s Balstrode is well sung but he’s more of the Borough and less the more broadly travelled and worldly wise character than others make of him. Both Gregory Dempsey as Bob Boles and Elizabeth Bainbridge as Auntie are more delineated than is often the case and Ann Robson gives a decidedly sinister Mrs. Sedley. Other supporting roles are perfectly adequate. Britten conducts the LSO and gives, especially, in the interludes, an even more taut and compelling reading than on the audio recording with the ROH Orchestra ten years earlier. This, for sure, is definitive.

Technically this disc is amazingly good. The 4:3 picture is a bit soft grained but amazing for 1969 TV. The sound is “enhanced Dolby mono” and while, obviously, it doesn’t produce any width or depth it’s clear and bright. (There’s also LPCM mono but its not nearly as good). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles.

All in all this is so much more than “just” a historical document. In every way it’s a performance worth watching.

The Vickers Grimes

When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.

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