Double play; Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...

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Britten: Peter Grimes

Philip Langridge, Janice Watson, Alan Opie, LSO Chorus,

City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 9447/8; two discs)

The first and last word must be for Philip Langridge's blazing Grimes, finally, properly, committed to disc. Those who have seen him in the theatre will know how completely he now inhabits Grimes, how vocally, physically, he has made flesh of him. It's almost too real for an operatic performance. The words are so vivid, so immediate, the vocal line so characterised, that you sometimes forget it is being sung. And, unlike Peter Pears, who, for better and worse, set the tone for the role, Langridge is believable as both visionary and fisherman. The voice readily glazes over in prospect of a safe haven ("What harbour shelters peace"), in remorse ("Who can turn skies back..."), in dreams ("...I've built myself some kindlier home"), but in the blink of an eye he's "a flashing turmoil", a cornered animal - dangerous, unpredictable. It's hard to listen to his final scene: there is so much hurt in the madness. And, for once, the woman of his dreams, the salvation that can never be, because it is too late, is no walkover. Janice Watson is a fine, proud, upstanding Ellen Orford. "Embroidery in childhood" (the line aching with regret) is all heart and compassion. But she can stop the "Borough" in its tracks with her steely resolve: "Let her among you without fault, cast the first stone" combines strength and dignity. Don't cross her.

The context for these two marvellous performances (and they are by no means the only two in a Borough full of well-etched characters) has been beautifully managed in Chandos's atmospheric production. It's a big soundstage, movement and distancing imaginatively gauged, with wind, slamming tavern door and the like all adding to the smell of theatre. Richard Hickox keeps a pretty firm hand on the tiller - a hefty, seafaring reading, to be sure - though occasional drop-outs in narrative tension point to a certain lack of impetus. From the moment Balstrode announces "Look, the storm cone..." we must feel the unstoppability of it. That great ensemble "Now the flood tide and sea horses" is a shade too emphatic, the jagged brass and side drum syncopations somehow failing to knock us off-kilter. The storm interlude brings mountainous seas and terrific trombone slurs, but not quite the momentum to sweep us breathlessly into the next scene. Odd balancing of "Old Joe has gone fishing", too, the splendid LSO Chorus receding far too much to let in the solo voices.

But against that one must weigh the spooky integration of the off-stage dance band in Act 3 Scene 1, and an absolutely tremendous evocation of the jeering lynch-mob later in the same scene. For sure, you can see the whites of the LSO Chorus's eyes in this, their big moment. The City of London Sinfonia have their moments, too (the "Passacaglia" simmers, the difficult "Moonlight" interlude ebbs, to haunting effect): what's the odd imprecision against so much that is brave-spirited?

In an ideal world, I suppose I would like to transpose Langridge and Watson into the composer's own Decca recording - still a classic. But this new Chandos is certainly the best, the most sea-worthy, of the alternatives.

Philip Langridge's Barbican Peter Grimes last year was one of the most stirring things I've ever heard in concert. So has he managed to recreate his triumph on record? He has; from his very first entry in the Moot Hall inquest scene, Langridge's Grimes is a complex, living being - very human, but driven by dark, seemingly inhuman forces. His progress towards cathartic madness and death is at once inevitable and shocking. One recoils from the violence, the outbursts of ferocious rage, and yet it's impossible not to sympathise, especially when Grimes is finally reduced to the level of a hunted animal, the scapegoat driven on by a vengeful mob, beyond reach of human help. And what singing! Virtually every note is in place, phrasing and tone judged to a nicety.

But where the Barbican performance came dangerously close to a one-man show, this is more obviously a team effort. Hickox's grasp of the score seems to have deepened - intensity and dramatic momentum are much more consistent; now you can feel the screw gradually tightening in the orchestral "Passacaglia" in Act 2, building to just the right level of intensity for Grimes's agonising scene with the boy apprentice. And here the supporting cast does more than merely support. Alan Opie's Balstrode makes one think a little harder about the character - when does he begin to see himself as, effectively, Grimes's executioner? Janice Watson's Ellen Orford is very much a flesh-and-blood creation - impassioned, tender, and (thank God) not at all matronly - and again the notes are all there. It's wonderful to be able to feel the harmonic tension in her bi-tonal duet with Grimes at the end of the Prologue, the music enhancing the dramatic situation. More rosettes: to the four women for the Act 2 quartet, to the London Symphony Chorus for its powerful impersonation of the volatile mob, and to the recording team. This has to be the most serious challenger yet to Britten's own recording. Incidentally, how many other operas premiered since the Second World War can you think of that have been recorded more than once - let alone four times? That has to tell us something.