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Sir Colin Davis, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten

Philips, DUO — 20th Century Classics

1978

Who would’ve ever thought George Crabbe? In fact: who’d ever heard of George Crabbe?

Benjamin Britten’s music itself tends to plumb uncharted tonal and intellectual space without the added issues of his texts, and when Britten chooses texts, he chooses carefully. Certainly, Britten’s vocal works are littered with works from John Donne, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, W.H. Auden and William Shakespeare — a not obvious, but also not unheard of, choice of authors to set to music. What is particularly stunning, however, is Britten’s ear for the obscure, setting, among other things, the poetry of Christopher Smart, John Clare, Michaelangelo Buonarroti and, as it turns out, George Crabbe.

Sifting through the dregs of what history has deemed fit to record has its benefits, it turns out: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears came across Crabbe’s poem The Borough at Escondido, California in summer of 1941 and conceived of the opera, later formalized by the librettist Montagu Slater, whose title role Pears would come to premiere four years later.

But Britten’s Peter Grimes is different from the character in the episode from Crabbe’s poem. Both are outcasts from their society, both are accused of murdering their apprentices, both end up committing suicide. But whereas Crabbe’s character is undoubtedly blackguard, Britten’s Grimes is much more complex, his role in murder dubious, his psyche tormented by internal conflict and social scorn. It’s this complexity that makes Grimes interesting: while other characters often prattle on, Grimes’s gravity is a stark contrast — solemn, pensive and brooding, Grimes’s music is ponderously beautiful.

It’s worth noting: this is not the same beauty of traditional opera. Britten’s music is somehow more fragile than Wagner or Verdi. While classical or romantic opera revels in rich orchestration and lush arias, Britten’s opera revels in tonal precision and stunning harmonic relationships (when we first hear Peter Grimes, it is not in a richly orchestrated aria, but a spare, monotone, oath over an orchestral pedal note). This is music that’s conceived in the sound world of Baroque opera and inhabiting the intimate setting of art song, yet performed in the space of an opera. It’s no secret that Britten was writing for the clean, straight tone almost exclusive to his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and that not many voices are suited for Britten’s music.

It’s here that Sir Colin Davis’s recording of Peter Grimes (with Jon Vickers, Heather Harper and the chorus & orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, off the Philips label) often fails. An older recording, Davis’s version was recommended as part of ten recommended recordings that offer a précis of twentieth century music as presented in Alex Ross’s recent book, The Rest is Noise. Ross is right to tout this recording: Davis’s conception of Britten’s music somehow strikes home, capturing its place not only in British music and music in the twentieth century, but the sense of internal drama that is robust in Slater’s libretto and represented in Britten’s music. The orchestral performance on the recording is particularly striking — townsfolk are sure to never stray far from the madding crowd, while Grimes is other-worldly. Mob scenes performed with the chorus incite terror and, in their more thoughtful moments, a more haunting look at societal ineptitude.

Unfortunately, much of the solo performance on this recording is plagued by the vestiges of traditional opera. Vickers, singing the title role, captures the sound world that surrounds Britten’s music, but often breaks into a lush vibrato that somehow breaks the reverie. Most frustrating of these is Grimes’s famous first act aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades.” As with the beginning of his appearance in the prologue, Grimes chants the entire text on a single note, briefly breaking into an atonal tirade in the middle of the piece. While Vickers begins the aria with a characteristic clean, straight tone, he develops a wide vibrato as the aria intensifies, somehow disrupting the tension between seemingly disjoint worlds of the singer and the orchestra. Other instances are also frustrating throughout the solo performances: messy intonation often obfuscates difficult intervals, and the ensemble work is sometimes careless in its articulation of the lines.

This is expected, to be sure, especially from a cast that is trained in traditional opera, and it would be unfair and close-minded to demand a repeat of Pears’s performances with every new cast. However, it’s worth noting the tension of Britten’s intent with a performance of the work well after his death. Part of the difficulties of performing Peter Grimes is that it was very much written for the voice of Peter Pears and, in part, the soprano Joan Cross. Davis and the cast in this performance take these issues of Britten’s preference into account (certainly, a composer has some idea as to how the work should sound) but also expounds upon much of the music, depending on its own merits and independent of Britten’s penchants (certainly, there’s nothing to say that the composer knows how to perform the music best).

Regardless of these difficulties, however, Davis’s performance presents a moving portrait of Peter Grimes. Despite his temper and personality, it’s hard not to hear Britten telling of Peter Grimes’s eventual undoing as a tale of persecution. Certainly, Britten’s opera is first and foremost a tale about the gentle inhabitants of Crabbe’s Borough. However, written during the mid-twentieth century, the work can’t help but occupy a dual role in art and social commentary. An allegory for gruesome homosexual persecution, a diatribe against war and mob action, a strong statement of the importance of delineating individual rights against societal influence, the opera dangerously blurs a fine line between art and political manifesto. The same gales that plagued Britten’s world hear their echo in Peter Grimes.