Bergen Philharmonic/Gardner

Britten: Peter Grimes


Three years ago, Edward Gardner brought his Bergen International Festival concert version of Britten’s seminal opera Peter Grimes to the Edinburgh International Festival. A splendid cast led by Stuart Skelton in the title role, supported by Gardner’s Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, and augmented by singers from the Edward Grieg Kor, Collegium Musicum and Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, presented a memorably gripping performance in the Usher Hall.

With minimal changes – notably Roderick Williams replacing Christopher Purves as Captain Balstrode – nothing is lost in this equally exceptional Chandos recording. In fact, so powerfully theatrical is Gardner’s pacing, so perceptive of the music’s complex inexorable logic, that the absence of the visual dimension subtracts nothing from its meaningful enjoyment. Rather it concentrates the mind on the internalised intensity of the score.

At the heart is the pitiable Grimes, a social outcast, suspected of serial child abuse, whose fate is firmly sealed by his obstinate belligerence against the sanctimonious prejudices of “The Borough” folk, who are out to get him, guilty or not. 

Skelton gets to the heart of the antihero’s anguish and ostracisation, though in a vein that is miles removed from the role’s original creator, Peter Pears. There is a mellower humanity to Skelton’s probing portrayal that captures in its own powerful way the fragility of Grimes’ fondness for Ellen (virtuously and compassionately embraced by soprano Erin Wall), and the venomous torment unleashed as madness exercises its final stranglehold. 

But this is a veritable team triumph with not a single weak link. A host of differentiating characters make their indelible mark, including Williams as a warmly benevolent Balstrode, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the prim busybody Mrs Sedley alongside Susan Bickley’s heartily charismatic Auntie. The chorus is both a physical and psychological centrepiece, the mouthpiece of the collective conscience.

All of which sits perfectly within Gardner’s pellucid musical vision, and a vital orchestral performance that shimmers iridescently in the Sea Interludes, and illuminates every bar with precise, pulsating excellence. 
Ken Walton

Image: Britten’s Peter Grimes at the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival, Usher Hall ©Beth Chalmers