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Britten and the British

01/10/2004 -  and 12 January 2004
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes

Glenn Winslade (tenor), Janice Watson (Ellen Orford), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Balstrode), Jill Grove (Auntie), Sally Matthews (First niece), Alison Buchanan (Second niece), Christopher Gillet (Bob Boles), James Rutherford (Swallow), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Sedly), Ryland Davies (Rev Horace Adams), Nathan Gunn (Ned Keene), Jonathan Lemalu (Hobson)

London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus

Colin Davis (conductor)

The London Symphony Orchestra began their centenary year with a luminous performance of Britten's Peter Grimes, a work well chosen both to showcase the orchestra's musical strengths and to assert its position as an institution. The LSO was founded in 1904 by a group of orchestral musicians who weren't going to take any tyrannical nonsense from Henry Wood. The tyranny was that he insisted on the players he'd hired showing up for performances instead of sending substitutes, but the rebels were the leading orchestral musicians in London and they formed the basis for a new orchestra that was always to be musically distinguished if institutionally turbulent. The LSO has never quite been at the top of the world's orchestral league tables, which are maintained by those for whom excellence in Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner is the key to status. But it has turned out to be a leading orchestra of the whole twentieth century. Britten, who transformed English national and pre-classical forms through a modernist neo-classical prism, seems likewise to epitomise the century, and Peter Grimes represented his (and Britain's) breakthrough into the international genre of opera.

This concert performance had well chosen principals and a superb choral performance, but it was still definitely a concert, in contrast to Colin Davis' equally unstaged Berlioz operas in recent years where the drama built into the music is not to be denied. The sea interludes, viscerally lucid like a walk on the Suffolk coast in winter, were the structural focus. The chorus, an abstract embodiment of the community and its values, provided a striking reminder of the one major genre that can claim to have been invented in England, the dramatic secular oratorio. (Vladimir Jurowski at Glyndebourne a few years ago made them into a Hollywood-operetta mob, perhaps out of Franz Waxman's score for the Bride of Frankenstein. ) Janice Watson as Ellen and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode are theatrical old hands, but didn't generally deliver theatre, although both were well inside the music. Watson, serious and intelligent, is still far too glamorous to be a widowed schoolteacher without a frumpy costume and some wrinkles. The rest of the ensemble were well characterised without, again, being particularly dramatic. Jill Grove's forthright Auntie was not a landlady you would argue with about drinking up.

Glen Winslade is making a career as a Heldentenor after starting out in as a lyric tenor, but his voice is still far from the baritonal boom of tradition. He sang Grimes with shimmering beauty and deceptive force and looked suitably hairy and rough, but there was no sign of either the visionary or the brute in his performance, or indeed of any musical personality.

HE Elsom



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