Stuart Skelton’s “Peter Grimes”

CHSA 5250(2) cover

BRITTEN: Peter Grimes / Stuart Skelton, ten (Peter Grimes); Erin Wall, sop (Ellen Orford); Roderick Williams, bar (Capt. Balstrode); Susan Bickley, mezzo (Auntie); Hanna Husáhr, sop (First Niece); Vibeke Kristensen, mezzo (2nd Niece); Robert Murray, ten (Bob Boles); Neal Davies, bs-bar (Swallow); Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo (Mrs. Sedley); James Gilchrist, ten (Rev. Horace Adams); Marcus Farnsworth, bar (Ned Keene); Barnaby Rea, bs (Hobson); Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Edvard Grieg Kor; Royal Northern College of Music Chorus; Choir of Collegium Musicum; Bergen Philharmonic Orch.; Edward Gardner, cond / Chandos CHSA 5250(2)

This will not just be a review of this new recording, but an object lesson to readers on how classical music promotion has reached new lows  as well as amnesia about the past. I’m doing this not to denigrate this recording, which I happen to like, but to point out an issue that has been bothering me for some years now.

As part of their promotional material for this new release, Chandos is quoting a review by Richard Morrison in The Times (London) in praise of Stuart Skelton: “The burly Aussie tenor is now even more identified with this ill-fated protagonist than Peter Pears, the first Grimes. And everywhere Skelton has sung the part, whether at English National Opera, the Proms, the Edinburgh festival or now on this international tour of a concert staging mounted by the Bergen Philharmonic, the conductor has been Edward Gardner. Theirs is one of the great musical partnerships, and they continue to find compelling new depths in this tragic masterpiece.”

Indeed. But wait just a minute…wasn’t it just 20 years ago that critics were telling us that Anthony Dean Griffey was the greatest Grimes of our time? Why, yes, I believe it was. Here is what Classical Music.com, a subsidiary of BBC Music Magazine, said about Griffey’s recording:

Griffey GrimesAnthony Dean Griffey, though he occasionally has the visionary beauty of the late, great Anthony Rolfe Johnson, is very much his own man as Grimes: his torment breaks out in spine-chilling shouts and the mad scene subsides into haunted crooning which takes us to another place until the heightened dawn music allows the tears finally to flow.

And here’s what William Burnett, writing on the blog Opera Warhorses, said about Griffey’s Grimes at the Houston Grand Opera only 10 years ago:

A generation ago, Jon Vickers and Jess Thomas associated this role with the vocal heft of heldentenors, used to singing the big roles of Richard Wagner’s music dramas. Starring in the production was arguably the supreme Peter Grimes of our times, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who carries on the tradition of these large-voiced tenors…Griffey has rarely performed in Houston. His voice resounded through Houston’s Alice and George Brown Theater, in a searing performance that portrays an unforgettable characterization of this doomed man.

So the verdict was not only in, it was echoed everywhere he performed the role. Griffey was THE Peter Grimes of the modern era. No one else need apply.

I have 2 ¼ recordings of Peter Grimes, the ¼ recording being the selected scenes recorded by the original cast for EMI in 1946: Peter Pears as Grimes, Joan Cross as Ellen and the Covent Garden Orchestra conducted by Reginald Goodall. I also own Griffey’s recording of the opera, and it’s an excellent one all round. My sole complaint is that, having been taped live at Glyndebourne, there’s a bit too much of that theater’s natural reverb around the orchestra and singers, but that is often the case with live performances. The only thing that struck me as somewhat uncharacteristic of a Grimes was that Griffey’s voice sounded very lyric, with no sound of the “commoner” in him, which Pears clearly brought to the role.

Vickers GrimesAnd then there was Jon Vickers. He began singing the role in the mid-1960s and quickly made it one of his signature roles, alongside of Otello and Siegmund in Die Walküre, but Benjamin Britten hated his interpretation. He thought Vickers’ Grimes too rough, too psychotic, and too loud for the part, in addition to the fact that he preferred using the earlier, corrupted edition of the score which Britten had since corrected. Yet although Britten disliked Vickers’ Grimes, Pears loved it and found it fascinating, in fact borrowing some of Vickers’ dramatic effects whenever he sang the role after seeing him. So there’s an artistic paradox for you.

Yet when Vickers’ recording came out on LP in the 1970s, everybody loved it except one or two British critics who felt they had to respect Britten’s opinion. But things just keep changing in the opera world. At the Mostly Opera website, one commentator summed up this trilogy of performers thus in a 2009 post:

I’ve only seen excerpts from the Pears film but I have listened to the Decca CD version of Grimes countless times. I saw Vickers sing the role at the ROH and I’ve seen recordings of that production subsequently. I would choose Pears of the two for conveying what, I think, is an intended ambiguity in the role that Vickers loses. That said, I’ll take Tony Dean Griffey as the best I have seen in this, one of my favourite, roles.

So now we’re back to Anthony Dean Griffey.

Yet one should also be a bit careful about our perception of the title role. While it is true that Britten, a closeted homosexual, saw in the character an analogy to gay men, George Crabbe’s poem (click HERE to read it) shows absolutely nothing that would support that interpretation. Vickers, who grew up in rural Canada and was very well familiar with the fishing community, understood when reading the poem that yes, Grimes was the quintessential outsider, but this had more to do with his lack of education and socialization skills than with his sexual orientation. For better or worse, Grimes was a brute; he frequently beat his apprentices, which he got from local “work houses,” and more than one died mysteriously when he was out at sea. Therefore Vickers’ interpretation of the title role was a valid one, whatever one thought of Pears’ interpretation, and Pears himself recognized this when he saw and approved of Vickers’ performance.

This, in microcosm, is the big problem with classical music marketing nowadays. It’s OK to compare the New Recording of fill-in-the-blank with an icon from the past, but for God’s sake ignore the others you praised to the skies in earlier times. Believe it or not, I recall a time when the Brits who dismissed Vickers in the role were saying that Robert Tear was the greatest modern Grimes; and then, of course, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson had his swings at the plate and received similar purple prose. Whatever is the flavor of the moment, by all means push it as hard as you can and ignore all those performers in between who you praised as “the best” before this current “best” came along.

One could apply such standards to the new recordings, constantly being cranked out, of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, or Mahler Symphonies. Let’s take the Beethoven, for example. It’s fair game to compare your new set favorably to, say, Friedrich Gulda or Wilhelm Kempff, perhaps even say that so-and-so gives the most original performances since Artur Schnabel (if anyone in your reading audience even knows who Schnabel was), but what about all the OTHER Beethoven Sonata recordings once hailed by all of you critics as fantastic? Shall I give you the laundry list? Claude Frank. Richard Goode. John O’Conor. Annie Fischer. Craig Sheppard. Michael Korstick. Stephen Kovacevich. I happen to own three Beethoven sonata cycles by Walter Gieseking, Korstick and Kovacevich. They’re more than enough for me. Yet I still have a few of the sonatas as played by Fischer and O’Conor, in addition to a few one-off recordings by Egon Petri and Van Cliburn. And yes, I was one of those critics who touted the O’Conor set when it came out because it conveyed to me a very different sound-world for Beethoven than I had been used to. It was, at least, unique, but over time I kept going back to Gieseking, Korstick and Kovacevich. But that’s my taste. You may still enjoy one of Gulda’s complete sets better—or the Frank, Goode, Fischer or Sheppard sets. It’s your taste; I just tell you what affects me the most and let the chips fall where they may.

This studio recording, made in October and November 2019, is  very well conducted by Edward Gardner and, being a studio job, is perfectly engineered and balanced. Skelton, whose voice can, and often does, sound tight and dry, is in superb voice here as he was in Simon Rattle’s Die Walküre recording, and he gives a very sensitive portrayal, somewhere between Pears and Vickers. Soprano Erin Wall, as Ellen, has a pretty voice but a heavy flutter-vibrato which at times got on my nerves. Both Susan Gorton (with Griffey) and Susan Bickley are excellent as Auntie. Tenor Robert Murray, as Bob Boles, is a great improvement over John Graham-Hall with Griffey. I was, however, less pleased with the uneven, wobbly voice of Neal Davies as Swallow; Stafford Dean, in the Griffey recording, had a much steadier voice and was just as interesting an interpreter. Gardner’s conducting is somewhat brisker than that of Mark Wigglesworth, though Wigglesworth is a superb conductor in his own right, but the better sonics on this recording bring out the full color of Britten’s score better. And I will go one step further: never before, not even on Britten’s own recording, have I ever heard such clear orchestral detailing as in this recording. At times, it almost sounds as if the orchestra were recorded in 3-D, and the tautness of Gardner’s conducting brings the structure of the opera together in a way I’ve never heard in my life. Just listen to the way he rips through Interlude II in Act I and tell me if you’ve ever heard its like. I never have.

Nor have I ever seen or heard a performance of this opera that used THREE choruses. What’s up with that?!? They certainly don’t sound like three choruses singing together, thus one must assume that they were decompartmentalized: perhaps the sopranos and mezzos from one chorus, the tenors from a second, and the basses from the third. Who knows? I sure don’t. But they clearly sing well.

Skelton’s interpretation is much closer to Vickers than to Pears. This is fine by me, but I’m sure it will upset those who view Grimes as a tortured soul who simply cannot find a way out of his dilemma without a bit of self-pity. He wants to become engaged to Ellen, but when she tries to get close to him, he pushes her away. He wants the people of the Borough to accept him, but he maintains his distance and acts as brutally and antisocially as he can. No matter how you slice it, the Peter Grimes of the opera is still the undereducated, poorly socialized brute of the Crabbe poem and always will be, no matter how sensitively Peter Pears tried to make him seem.

My verdict on this recording is that it is a quite good presentation of the opera, largely due to Gardner’s conducting and the outstanding sound quality, but somehow misses the mark. I can’t shake the feeling that Skelton doesn’t really “feel” the character despite singing it very well. As a Russian critic once said when comparing the stage presentations of Feodor Chaliapin to those of Mattia Battistini, the first seemed to be the character himself while the second was a passionate barrister pleading the protagonist’s case. Of course, your impression may be different, but if you really compare his performance to those of Pears, Vickers and Griffey, I think you’ll hear the difference. And I really couldn’t take Erin Wall’s squally singing, and that is non-negotiable with me. If you dislike the overall performance of Pears’ commercial recording of the opera (Claire Watson’s Ellen is no bargain, either), you might try to locate the excerpts he recorded with Joan Cross back in the ‘40s, but for me the Vickers and Griffey recordings are indispensable. This one, for all its good qualities, is not.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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