CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: On the other hand: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson beg to differ on new releases

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BRITTEN: Peter Grimes

Rolfe Johnson, Lott, Allen, Chorus

and Orchestra of the Royal Opera

House / Bernard Haitink

(EMI 7 54832-2: two CDs)

'THE Borough' is very much alive and kicking in this triumphant EMI production, from the hubbub of the Prologue's inquest to the rowdy interior of Auntie's pub, shutters rattling and doors slamming in the storm winds.

We have felt its fury in Bernard Haitink's ferocious despatch, the Royal Opera House orchestra pushed to strident limits. Haitink's reading has teeth, it has the pulse, the intimidating undertow of this miraculous score, elemental and human tempers forever threatening to explode. The ugly manhunt scene is properly electrifying, the pressure-point of the entire drama.

As Grimes, their sacrificial lamb, Anthony Rolfe Johnson is a world apart from the inimitable Peter Pears or the apocalyptic Jon Vickers. The poet-visionary takes precedence here over the calloused roughneck fisherman. His burnished delivery seems mindful always of those elusive 'safe harbours'. Overly refined? Perhaps; but with a vulnerability that will break your heart in the poignant final scene. Felicity Lott is marvellous as Ellen, finding womanly resolve in a chest voice that I never knew existed. Nor is it easy to think of a more commanding, big-hearted Balstrode than Thomas Allen. But the real hero is the piece itself. Listen to the elegiac quartet of women at the close of Act 2, scene 2 and then tell me this isn't among the top ten operas of our century. PERHAPS the memory of Rostropovich's Barbican concert performance earlier this year is still too strong. Haitink's version is sometimes beautiful, sometimes eloquent, but not overwhelmingly dramatic. Some of the finest moments come in the purely orchestral passages - the Act 3 moonlight interlude, the Berg-like prelude to the hunting of Grimes, or the hard-driven storm. But the crowd scenes are grand, statuesque - anything but volatile.

And much the same could go for Haitink's sea: elemental, maybe, but dangerously changeable? Impassive is more the word. Against this backdrop one human figure stands out - but it isn't Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Grimes, fine though the performance is. It's Felicity Lott's Ellen Orford that provides the blast of unsettling human warmth in the midst of all this Olympian beauty and grandeur.

That she dominates the questioning of the near-silent apprentice is hardly surprising; that she should steal the scenes with Grimes is more worrying. SJ

PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater.

Salve Regina.

SCARLATTI: Salve Regina

Anderson, Bartoli, Sinfonietta de

Montreal / Charles Dutoit

(Decca 436 209-2)

THE 'Mantovani' effect at the opening of the Stabat Mater sums up Dutoit's contribution, every note cushioned and cosseted, oddly nondescript. It's at once the wrong kind of atmosphere - plushy, urbane, the wrong kind of context for Pergolesi's intimate, highly personalised voices. And voices are what this piece is really about. Actually, the unlikely pairing of June Anderson's biggish coloratura soprano and Cecilia Bartoli's small, perfectly formed lyric mezzo works surprisingly well.

They cling like twin vines to the duet numbers, colours well blended into the keening harmonies, trills beautifully dovetailed, the inflamed counterpoint of 'Fac ut ardeat cor meum' tight and alert. Anderson's tone has a chilly edge to it, but in true bel canto style she can take the sound away exquisitely. Her ebbing pianissimo on the words 'His spirit passed away' is a special moment, the still centre of this beautiful work.

Pergolesi wins on points in the Salve Regina stakes (the Alessandro Scarlatti setting is 'attributed'), though in this instance Anderson strives so hard for the pure 'white' sound that her intonation is apt to sour. Sorrow is not always so sweet. ES

IT isn't often a record reviewer comes across a four-dimensional mis-match, but this looks perilously close. Pergolesi and Alessandro Scarlatti's invocations to the Virgin Mother sit comfortably enough together, and perhaps under other conditions I might have guiltily enjoyed Dutoit and the Montreal Sinfonietta's soft-focus approximations of the early 18th century - authentic it isn't. But as for Anderson and Bartoli - neither voice sounds completely happy even on its own territory.

Tonally Bartoli alternates between solid richness and simple under-projection. But at least she's rhythmically precise, which, I'm afraid, is more than can be said for Anderson: her lines are oddly weak in profile, and the sparing use of vibrato in certain places doesn't help - sometimes the result is tonal purity, sometimes it's just thin.

The two sounds rarely blend completely, and there isn't much sense of expressive engagement, either with each other, or with Dutoit and his musicians; - or, still more to the point, with the music. Both composers deserve better.

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