Colin Davis

Britten: Peter Grimes

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This Peter Grimes from 2004 is most noteworthy for the outstanding performance of the LSO, which plays with sonic depth and vigor and benefits from conductor Colin Davis' many years of experience with the piece. It may be the finest orchestral realization of the score yet put to record. The cast is also excellent, headlined by Glenn Winslade and Janice Watson, and packed with star power in smaller roles, like baritone Nathan Gunn as Ned Keene. But overall it is unlikely to supplant Davis' own studio recording of the work starring Jon Vickers, or Benjamin Britten's version starring Peter Pears, in the hearts of opera fans. Unlike some other operatic entries in the LSO Live series, it often sounds like what it is: a concert. The fact that it's live is not the issue. It's that the sense of space and the subtle distance of an operatic stage are replaced here by the compact, fully forward experience of an oratorio, making it easy to appreciate the greatness of Britten's music for Peter Grimes -- the interludes, the subtle shifts of timbre and articulation, the storm, etc. -- but harder to appreciate the composer's genius for creating atmosphere and drama. Perhaps it is a purely technical issue: the chorus is so much in the foreground that you can hear individual voices, and the overall balance is orchestra-heavy. But it may be more an aspect of the piece itself, much of which is set outdoors and depends on the evocation of a seaside fishing village. With that in mind, it is not surprising that purely indoor scenes, like the opening inquest, and the use of offstage chorus behind Ellen Orford's "Glitter of waves and glitter of sunlight" at the opening of Act Two, stand out on the album as especially effective. They lend a welcome sense of depth to the production.

So, it may or may not strike Grimes aficionados as a contender for greatness, but the achievement this recording represents is still impressive. Recording Britten live is as tough a challenge as there is; his scores are complicated, tightly synchronized, and soaked in many layers of sound that have to be integrated in just the right way. The slight balance and focus problems mentioned earlier aside, Davis pulls off the feat with élan. The orchestra is incredibly tight, and every member of the cast delivers a studio-worthy performance -- true to the score, beautifully sung, and infused with welcome dramatic energy. Glenn Winslade is a worthy Grimes, especially well-suited to the character's more haunting moments, like his opening testimony at the trial, and "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades." He doesn't galvanize the character in the way that Vickers and Pears both did in their own way, but he is very effective. Janice Watson creates a very sympathetic and vocally appealing portrait of Ellen Orford. And Anthony Michaels-Moore delivers a stand-out performance as Balstrode -- vocally forceful and masterfully clear of diction.

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