Colin Davis’ Peter Grimes



It was one of those impulse buys. I didn’t really need Colin Davis’ new recording of Peter Grimes, nor was I really on the lookout for a new version. Anytime I get a hankerin’ to hear Britten’s masterpiece, the composer’s own recording is more than up to the challenge. In fact, up until today it was the only version I’d heard. I’ve always figured that since Britten actually could conduct, and he wrote the piece, everyone else is at a natural disadvantage, so why bother. Well, this new version proved that I should consider other recordings.

I will start by stating the obvious: Glenn Winsdale in the lead is simply no match for Peter Pears. How could he be? He sings well enough, but he never really inhabits the character the way Pears does. But, like with Britten’s conducting, everyone else is pretty much at a disadvantage. The other singers all do well enough, with Janice Watson’s Ellen Orford the most enjoyable to listen to. No one embarrasses him- or herself.

The singers are not the reason to hear this set. That belongs to the orchestral and choral performances, and to the conducting. Davis leads a scorching performance. Since this is a concert recording, the orchestra is even more prominent than it would otherwise be, and Davis attends to absolutely every detail in flawless fashion. I can only imagine the rehearsal time he must have needed. The truly remarkable quality of the score comes to the fore from the outset. One hears in pristine detail the remarkable, dissonant string writing, the carefully expressive wind writing, the blaring brass. Innumerable times during the piece, one can hear all manner of detail that are not always so clear. There really are so many instances that it is hard to think of which ones to highlight. Okay, here’s just one: the horn tremolos during the transition from the interlude opening Act II to Ellen’s singing are flawlessly executed and never intrusive.

Beyond the remarkable, felicitous detail, the overall feeling one gets is a reading of ferocious dramatic power. All of the interludes are simply miraculous, with enormous weight and power where needed, more delicate playing when appropriate. For instance, the second “storm” interlude is massive and imposing, the sound erupting from the orchestra in a torrent of blistering notes. Throughout the work, the bass drum is pounded with an imposing wallop to punctuate passages and scenes appropriately. (My entire listening room was energized by the thwacks, and I use two-way towers. A full range system, or a big sub would shake an entire residence.) Davis will float the most delicate orchestral piano imaginable just to have the work build up to a fevered, swelling tutti, as if to imitate the sea, so central to this work. The LSO present a virtuosic reading of the score in the best conceivable meaning of the word virtuosic.

And so does the chorus. Throughout they astonish. Whether it’s just the women, the entire village, or even the a cappella passages in Act III, they never disappoint. There ensemble singing is flawless, their tone impeccable, their diction as clear as is discernible. (The recording, though excellent, cannot suitably capture the chorus all of the time.) They are an integral part of the affair.

Any complaints? Sure. The offstage portions are too distant, and at times I wish the singers could have been placed more prominently in the mix, and LSO Live could have put this out as a two-disc set rather than three (though price is hardly an issue). These are all minor quibbles that disappear in the face of such a powerful performance. What an electric performance! How lucky those in attendance just this past January were. If you like this opera, you may want to consider this version, to hear it anew.

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