BBC Music Magazine's '5 Essential Works by Benjamin Britten' 2012
The word 'classic' is applied to hundreds of recordings, but it is never more fitting than when applied to this album. Not only is it the premiere recording of the opera Peter Grimes, but it also features the composer's muse, tenor Peter Pears, and, as if that were not enough, it is also conducted by the composer himself, Benjamin Britten.
With sterling support from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and featuring a stellar cast of singers, this is one of the most exciting and treasured recordings to be re-mastered in Studio Master quality by Decca.
Since its first performances in England, Peter Grimes has gone on to become part of the central operatic repertoire, not just in Europe but all over the world.
The cast is led by Peter Pears, who created the title role, as the loner hounded by the suspicion of the fishing village, and Claire Watson as the schoolteacher Ellen Orford who befriends him. The strong supporting cast includes Owen Brannigan and Sir Geraint Evans.
The real star of the recording, however, is Britten himself, conducting his most dramatic and deeply felt score. The electric intensity of the Covent Garden chorus in full cry is matched by the orchestral contribution, particularly in the Four Sea Interludes, which have
understandably achieved worldwide popularity on the concert platform.
'The Covent Garden Orchestra rise superbly to their task and indeed one is left with an impression of the entire cast, of everybody concerned, being inspired by the presence and direction of the composer. Stereo naturally lends greater spaciousness to the sound but the fine sense of perspective gained by the different positioning of the singers, the feel of entrance and exit, are all present in the monophonic discs and the producer and engineers must be congratulated on their outstanding success which sets a new and very high standard. The balance nearly all through is remarkably good.' Gramophone
Extract from the sleeve notes by Donald Mitchell
It is a process of anticipation which we encounter at almost every step, and Britten the conductor never allows us to miss hearing a detail that is to accrue major significance as the work unfolds. It is typical, for instance, that after a first orchestral Interlude of exceptional lucidity and limpidity - its very clarity embodies its vitality - he makes sure, at the first mention of a probable storm at sea from the chorus, that an intimation of the storm, with all its heavy load of symbolism, does not pass unnoticed, even though at this stage it is encapsulated in a pianissimo chord for the brass. The bearer of ill tidings here, as so often in Britten, is the tuba (plus a stroke on the gong). As the opera progresses to its end, the tuba's role takes on a special status. It becomes almost a character in its own right, with a "voice" of its own. It is no accident that it is the tuba which provides one of the principal accompaniments of Grimes's great solo cadenza - the famous "Mad" scene - in which he makes his exit from the opera and from life itself. The tuba, ironically, in its role as off-stage foghorn, is the voice that laments his tragic death. It is the only lament Grimes is to receive.
Peter Grimes: Peter Pears
Ellen Orford: Claire Watson
Capt. Balstrode: James Pease
Auntie Jean: Claire Watson
Bob Boles: Raymond Nilsson
Swallow: Owen Brannigan
Mrs. Sedley: Lauris Elms
Ned Keene: Geraint Evans
Rector: John Lanigan
Hobson: David Kelly
1st Niece: Marion Studholme
2nd Niece: Iris Kells
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Conductor: Benjamin Britten.
Chorus-Master: Douglas Robinson
Review (from The Gramophone Magazine, 1959)
It is now just over fourteen years ago that the curtain rose for the first time on Peter Grimes, the first English opera on the grand scale which at once proclaimed itself a masterpiece, and which was soon to enter the repertoire of opera houses all over the world. The long delay in recording the opera, at which we have chafed, turns out to be a blessing in disguise for it now reaps the benefits of greatly improved methods of recording and reproduction and also of the new approach to production in the studio, which Decca have already so impressively demonstrated in Das Rheingold and here carry a stage further. Perhaps, in the Wagner opera, the hammering anvils and a few other things leapt out of the scene too forcibly in relation to their intrinsic importance: but the "effects" described in Eric Smith's interesting article elsewhere in this number are all in place here and never unduly obtruded, except one bell sound in Act 2 which-to make an atrocious pun-is too much of a big Ben for a village church.
The essential conflict in the opera is between Grimes and the community, and the enormously important part given to the chorus could not have made the dramatic impact that it does on these discs in the older days of recording. The big ensembles are, on mono as well as stereo, wonderfully well contained, becoming a little congested only in the round in the Inn scene of Act I, "Old Joe has gone fishing".
Two members of the original cast remain, Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan. Brannigan's characterisation of the officious and complacent Swallow is as good as ever and his clear enunciation is shared by all the male members of the cast.
There have been excellent portrayals of Grimes since Pears created the part but none that reached his artistic stature, even allowing for the fact that the part was written with his particular vocal abilities in mind. His voice, inevitably, has lost some of its penetrating power but he manages the big climaxes with great art and his feeling for words, for every variance and shade of emotion in his part, remains unsurpassed. I can well believe that as Mr. Smith writes, a studio has rarely witnessed as wthing so poignant as his singing, of the mad scene in the last Act. It is almost unbearably moving. Two other moments, in this great performance, haunt the memory, the beautifully sung passage before the storm interlude beginning "What harbour shelters peace"-which so wonderfully provides a lull in the interlude itself and suggests the lonely figure of Peter outlined against the stormy seascape-and the marvellously imaginative passage beginning "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" with its heartbreaking conclusion "who can turn skies back and begin again?". Those four repetitions of "who" would move a heart of stone one would think, but merely suggest to the villagers in the Inn that Grimes is drunk: its repeated notes are cruelly caricatured by the two nieces.
If Peter Pears is, for me, the only Grimes, Joan Cross is the only Ellen Orford: in this matter I do regret that the opera was not recorded before. I miss in Claire Watson's intelligent and often sensitive performance the humanity and maturity of Joan Cross's schoolmistress, "the poor teacher, lonely and widow'd". Here again Britten had her voice in mind and she negotiated with ease phrases that give Miss Watson some trouble. The second phrase of the arioso "Let her among you without fault cast the first stone", a downward scale starting on a high note, is unevenly sung, and so is the upward scale in the Act 2 arioso "Glitter of waves and glitter of sunlight", nor does Miss Watson manage the soft high notes in the "Embroidery" air well, or those in two phrases on the word "peace" elsewhere. These things said there is much to praise; the middle part of her voice is warm, the lowest notes very telling, and many phrases are beautifully shaped as for example when she says to Peter in the first scene of Act 2, "Were we mistaken when we schemed to solve your life by lonely toil? ... We were mistaken to have dreamed". Here she is in the very kin of the part, as also in her scene with Grimes's apprentice outside the church and at many other points. Jean Watson is a rumbustious Auntie if without the Rabelaisian flavour Edith Coates brought to the part and Lauris Elms does well as the amateur criminologist drugtaker Mrs. Sedley, whose sinister figure haunts the scenes in which she appears. Marion Studholme and Iris Kells are the pert nieces, anybody's money, to the life. I particularly like James Pease's forthright and sympathetic Balstrode, Raymond Nilsson's ranting and lecherous Bob Boles and John Lanigan's nicely stylised Rector.
The mind retains a clear picture of every character, major or minor, in the opera, sometimes by means of a few telling phrases such as the Carter Hobson's "I have to go from pub to pub", Mrs. Sedley's "Good Lord" and "Murder most foul it is", or Auntie's "a joke's a joke", and the Rector's "Good morning" and "Goodnight". Britten is a master of characterisation.
The Covent Garden Chorus cover themselves with glory at every point and nowhere more than in the great scene in the last Act which begins (on side 6) with Mrs. Sedley calling for Swallow now she has-as she thinks-the clue to the death of the apprentice-and moves with cumulative excitement and terrifying menace to the revengful cries "Ha, ha, we'll make the murderer pay" (all the more terrible because of Britten's masterly use at this point of some of the measures of the Ländler tune at the Borough Dance, now a dance of bloodlust) and then to those unforgettable three-fold brazen throated shouts of "Peter Grimes"; the second of them, after one of the most dramatic pauses in opera, answered by the ghostly note of a foghorn. This is a tremendous climax, the hatred of a crowd of mostly decent people stirred up to boiling point against the non-conformist, and full of a cruelty worse than the sadistic impulses of Grimes.
There follows another masterstroke that may easily not be recognised in the theatre. All through the succeeding interlude the horns hold the dominant seventh-built up from the foghorn's single note-the same chord that, on muted strings, accompanies Grimes's first words in the opera "I swear by Almighty God" (and so sets him apart) in answer to Swallow's roughly spoken instruction and the loud chord for brass that follows it. This sixth and last Interlude, and the scene that succeeds it, a picture of a desperate tortured soul, are perhaps the greatest things in the opera; on paper so simple, in effect seeming to contain all the sorrows of lonely mankind and finally capturing our sympathy for the outcast.
One wants to write about every page of this magnificent work but this is a review and I must end with the most important thing of all in the performance, and that is Britten's conducting. Four of the Interludes are often played in the concert hall and of course were recorded by van Beinum on Decca LW5244 but here they sound, under the composer's direction, as never before-and that is true of every bar in the opera. Now at last free of the distractions in the theatre, the barbaric chocolate munchers, match-strikers and whisperers, one can appreciate to the full the inventiveness, beauty, and vividness of the orchestration, the whole masterly construction of the opera.
The Covent Garden Orchestra rise superbly to their task and indeed one is left with an impression of the entire cast, of everybody concerned, being inspired by the presence and direction of the composer.
Stereo naturally lends greater spaciousness to the sound but the fine sense of' perspective gained by the different positioning of the singers, the feel of entrance and exit, are all present in the monophonic discs and the producer and engineers must be congratulated on their outstanding success which sets a new and very high standard. The balance nearly all through is remarkably good.
I cannot pretend to have been able to review these records dispassionately, having known since childhood a village on the Norfolk coast like this one and grown up with its fishing community, and having been there when the cruel North Sea, the dominant force in the opera, broke through on a night of such a storm as Britten depicts and claimed the land for miles around; having seen so many dawns like the one he so exquisitely paints in the first Interlude and again at the end of the opera. No, I feel too involved to be dispassionate but yet declare with certainty that every lover of great music and great theatre will be thrilled with this magnificent achievement-even if he may not have received any such overwhelming impression in the opera house-and proud of its nationality.
A.R. - Gramophone, 1959
An article on the recording of the opera
(again from the 1959 issue of Gramophone)
PETER GRIMES IN STEREO by ERIC SMITH
The author is a member of the Classical Artists and Repertoire Department of the Decca Record Company.
THE opportunity of working with the composer himself on the recording of a major work comes our way all too rarely. This, I suppose, is partly because few really important works are written these days, and also because the record companies rarely obtain sales large enough to cover the cost of recording contemporary music. So we were all especially pleased with the prospect of recording Peter Grimes.
Benjamin Britten had never conducted Peter Grimes before. Unlike some distinguished contemporary composers, who might have good cause to be, he is extremely modest about his conducting. (When he came to conducting the Round in the second scene, he said he wished he had not written it in 7/4 time!) But singers and orchestra had nothing but praise for the clarity of his beat and for his inspiration which led them all to give their best possible performance. In playbacks he, for his part, would express delighted astonishment at some particularly beautiful singing or playing and give all the credit to the artists concerned. Though one should not be conscious of all our difficulties when listening to the record, you can imagine the problems of ensemble and balance produced by a large orchestra, mobile soloists and chorus, off-stage chorus, off-stage band, church bells, shutting doors, a foghorn, wind machines, and a small boy producing an anguished scream on (or very nearly on) top C.
On the technical side we were particularly grateful for Benjamin Britten's helpfulness and humour and objectivity in regard to practical problems, which must sometimes be difficult when one is so intimately involved in the music as both composer and conductor. Probably most great composers have this critical, realistic side to their nature.
The cast was that of the excellent recent Covent Garden production with the one major exception of the part of Ellen Orford which is sung on the record by the American soprano, Claire Watson. She brought to it the beauty of tone and above all the dramatic intensity with which she has sung major roles in many opera houses. (One small problem, incidentally, was to make a Suffolk village out of Americans, South Africans and Welshmen; but I think that before the end of the recording all the artists felt quite East Anglian!) The illusion we wish you to have when listening to a stereophonic opera is that of being in an expensive stalls seat- with your eyes closed. With Peter Grimes we did consider abandoning this illusion for the illusion of the actual setting of the drama. The opera was conceived and partly planned when the composer read Crabbe's long poem "The Borough" while zig-zagging across the U-boat haunted Atlantic in 1942; it is not surprising that the sea in all its moods is present in the score. It was very tempting to introduce into the recording the sound of the sea, of shingle and presumably the inevitable seagull, especially in the scene where Peter walks off in silence to push his boat out to sea and drown himself. But this sort of realism might have been very disturbing if the sound of the sea and the shingle had not been kept up in all the open-air scenes of the opera. It was soon realised that the music itself sufficiently conjured up the presence of the sea (or, for example, the capstan represented by the clicking xylophone) and that we must avoid producing something like a radio play with incidental music and sound effects. So we decided to content ourselves with taking the listener to Covent Garden rather than the beach at Aldeburgh.
There are, however, two reasons why we sometimes depart a little from the illusion of the theatre. First the "blind" listener must be helped to understand what is happening on the stage. John Culshaw writing in the March issue of THE GRAMOPHONE, mentioned the difficulty of producing the sound of the building-up of the Nibelungen hoard in front of Freia-a sound that is in itself of no importance on the stage. But Wagner's gods at least have no doors to shut; in the second scene of Peter Grimes the sound of the door shutting is really important. Again sound effects sometimes have to be exaggerated so that the listener will realise that he is not merely hearing the accidental upsetting of a music stand; thus, when Balstrode in the score "quickly overpowers" the drunken Boles, we made their struggle into a small wrestling match. The turning of keys in the second act of The Marriage of Figaro, which we recently recorded stereophonically for R.C.A., is another instance of the importance of sound effects on records, which may be unnecessary in the theatre. Our other reason for departing from the stage illusion is that we sometimes think that we can improve on the sound of the theatre (which is a small compensation for losing all the visual element of opera). You may remember the sound of Alberich's voice in the recording of Das Rheingold where he is made invisible and in an uncanny way ubiquitous by the Tarnhelm. In the same way we emphasised the supernatural quality of the voices of Grimes's pursuers in the fog: they are less the threatening voices of the villagers hunting for the public enemy than the fancies of his crazed mind. At times the beauty and softness of their singing makes them almost appear to be sirens lulling him to his death and preparing for the outcome of that haunting scene. Now what about the stereophonic sound as such with its illusion of "solidity"- which is what the word means? I sometimes suspect that many listeners (or their equipment) are not perfectly attuned to the stereo effect of placing and movement. They have been known to praise the vivid stage sense of a "production", in productions where in fact the singers stood in front of one microphone throughout and were sometimes even supposed to be kissing or slapping characters yards away from them. Even today, I believe some "stereophonic" operas are recorded in which the singers stand in "tents" while their voices are shifted or faded by electronic means. But we have found that if a singer is supposed to sound as if he is moving, he must really move. In Peter Grimes even the chorus exits were real exits-no easy thing with the small doors of the Walthamstow Town Hall stage. For one thing, the artists themselves will, unconsciously perhaps, put more drama into their performance when working in something like theatre conditions. I well remember the first opera recordings in which we attempted a full-scale operatic production, because it was my task to chase droves of Valkyries across the stage at given moments. In fact, the monophonic version of Act 3 of Die Walküre, which came out months before the release of stereophonic records, was especially praised for its unusually dramatic atmosphere. So, monophonic records gained from the productions which were principally devised for the stereophonic medium. Nevertheless, the advantages of the stereophonic sound are enormous : you have only to listen to the clarity of the big ensemble numbers to realise this. Note also some other instances where the stereophonic sound underlines the drama: Peter's loneliness in the Court scene or again at Auntie's, where the inhabitants of the Borough are massed on the opposite side of the stage. See how vividly the scene is set at the beginning of the last Act, with the merrymaking up at Auntie's, with Mrs. Sedley lurking in the shadows of the boats, while Justice Swallow is chasing the nieces about and calling on them to "assign their prettiness to him".
Long before the recording began the stereophonic production was thoroughly planned. We went down to Aldeburgh, which is not only the home of Benjamin Britten but also the original "Borough" of the opera. There you can see the Moot Hall (where the Court is held), the Inn (Auntie's), the Church and the beach with fishing boats, very much as in the sets of the outdoor scenes of the opera. And there with the composer we discussed every point of movement on the stage, and how to get all the sounds just right-the crowd in the Court scene, the wind howling outside Auntie's, the changing sound of Peter's voice when he goes across the room to look out over the cliff. A series of about 25 plans was then produced to cover the whole opera for all stage movements and all special effects. You can see a specimen page reproduced here. Since recording is largely an empirical science, these plans were sometimes amended on the session; but they were the basis of our work. A stereophonic production is usually a simplification of a theatre production; too many small movements could cause confusion in the listener's mind. Since one is conscious of a singer's position only while he is singing, important movements must be made while actually singing-an idea that is not always popular with artists. On the photograph taken during a session you will see that the stage is covered by a diagram which allows the producer to move the singers rather like chessmen- for instance, "at the top of P. 200 move slowly to A 5". There are music stands of course, since Peter Grimes is a heavy vocal score, but no one is allowed to remain by one stand for very long. We would record a whole scene or a major section of a scene in one go. Our happiest moments were those when an entire scene was successful not only in conveying all the drama but in being without the small mistakes which are picked on so much more in recordings than in live performances and which necessitate the repeat of small separate sections. The entire Prologue in Court, as you will hear it on the record, is one recording. I shall long remember the recording of Peter Pears in the Mad Scene on our last session, which made on the hearers in the studio and in the recording room an emotional impression that does not perhaps arise too often on recording sessions. Why do we not record more actual theatre performances? The acoustics of Covent Garden were tried with a view to recording Peter Grimes but found unsuitable for our purpose. One can achieve far more directional effect and clarity in the studio, where we have complete freedom in the placing of microphones and singers. You may notice some variations in the text from the published version. These were mostly made over the years for reasons of sound and suitability for singing. One small change concerns the Rector, who had become something of a figure of fun in recent productions (his mention in Court produced laughter). But, as the composer pointed out, Mr. Adams is a good if rather weak man; and I think that the beautiful "Good-night" Aria sufficiently shows us that he is not a comic character.
The other change concerns that nebulous (non-singing) character, the Doctor. In the original draft, the composer tells me, it was intended to have Crabbe himself, who was at one time a doctor or apothecary, as a constant witness and narrator. But narrators have little scope in opera (the Governess in The Turn of The Screw is a different matter because she takes an important part in the action) and gradually Crabbe's part became quite insignificant. In addition it was pointed out that the opera was set in a period after Crabbe's death. So the Doctor became Dr. Thorpe. When it came to the recording, Benjamin Britten thought, in gratitude, perhaps, to his original inspiration, that Crabbe should be in it after all. And as composers can do these things without being attacked by sticklers for faithfulness to the "Urtext", Dr. Crabbe returned to the Borough. Finally, these are the three most important factors that make this, as I think, an intensely musical and dramatic recording. First, the advantage-perhaps too rare in recording-that we were able to take an existing stage production with nearly all its members; for nearly all singers will give a deeper and fuller account of a part which they have already played on the stage, and much the same applies to chorus and orchestra. In fact, Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan had taken part in the first performance and in very many since then. The second advantage is the extra vividness and clarity conferred by stereophonic sound and the "stage" production, with which we had been experimenting in recent years. But above all it was the direction and inspiration of Benjamin Britten himself which will ensure an important place for this set wherever opera is treasured.