Is Peter Grimes a self-portrait by Benjamin Britten? Ever since his death in 1976, it has been customary to categorise Britten, like the character of Grimes, as an outsider in society. But if there is one thing the composer’s centenary has taught us, a lesson brought powerfully into focus by the Southbank Centre’s Britten weekend, it is that you can no more pigeonhole Britten than you can restrict Grimes to the role of heroic misfit.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of the opera showed that, yes, the dysfunctional Suffolk fisherman is “callow, brutal and coarse”. But we could see and hear, in Stuart Skelton’s magnificent interpretation, that Grimes also has a visionary, childlike, “moral” side – just as Britten the idealist was simultaneously Britten the conformist and Britten the two-faced machinator.
Although this Grimes inhabited the concert hall, with the orchestra centre stage, it was acted out in costume in a way that created its own theatrical world. We didn’t need church, shore, hut or pub – we saw them in our mind’s eye, inhabited by a high-calibre cast and silhouetted by vividly coloured orchestral playing, not least in an immaculately tuned “Morning” interlude and a Passacaglia of Prokofiev-like spikiness.
Master of ceremonies was the cerebral Vladimir Jurowski, whose strict tempi gave this Grimes a chill virtuosity – a stimulating break from the cosy English norm. The chorus (London Voices) played an active part in Daniel Slater’s enterprising stage arrangement but it was the cast’s characterisations, individual and collective, that gave the performance its distinctive hue, with Brindley Sherratt’s resonant Bob Boles, Mark Stone’s suave Ned Keen and Jean Rigby’s nervy Mrs Sedley to the fore. Pamela Armstrong’s true-to-life Ellen sang a touching “broidery” aria, and Skelton – ideally brawny of manner and blessedly free of the English tenor school’s lean, comfortless timbre – emerged as today’s Grimes of choice.
Has “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” ever sounded so tender?
The diversity of Britten’s creative character was further underlined by a concert of his 1930s film scores – an Aldeburgh Music production marrying nine short documentaries (with the original soundtracks edited out) to performances by the Aurora Orchestra under the baton of Nicholas Collon. At first sight this was a feat of pure synchronisation, stylishly narrated by Sam West. Deeper down, it gave us a window into Britten’s early professional life, as he struggled to illustrate a Savings Bank advert, or a coal industry documentary, or a pacifist manifesto with minimal instrumentation.
Did it sound like Britten? Mostly not. He was in his early twenties at the time, still searching for a voice. Apart from Night Mail, a Post Office PR job that blossoms into musical artwork, we would not otherwise give these scores the time of day. But it was instructive to encounter them in their original visual format, to discover the seeds of his children’s music in The Tocher, to hear him stretched by WH Auden’s pithy texts.
With such events, the Britten centenary is causing a shift in perceptions. There are still swathes of music waiting to be discovered, a process that will continue when the Barbican pays its centenary tribute in November.
And Aldeburgh Music’s “Friday Afternoons” singing project has gone viral: on November 22, the composer’s birthday, more than 100,000 will take part worldwide.