The week in classical: Peter Grimes; Emerson Quartet; RPO/Petrenko | Classical music

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The Royal Opera’s new Peter Grimes (1945) immediately cuts to its tragic chase. The tenor Allan Clayton, as the eponymous fisherman, rolls and flops across the bare stage like a netted halibut in its last gasp of survival. An aerialist tumbles into the deep from a suspended boat, perhaps Grimes, perhaps the boy apprentice who died on his watch. This scene of quiet horror, replacing the usual inquest, is a brilliant opening stroke by director Deborah Warner and her creative team, led by set designer Michael Levine and lighting designer Peter Mumford. Now Grimes relives the courtroom trauma in his waterlogged nightmares.

This exceptional co-production, conducted at the ROH by Mark Elder, was first staged at Teatro Real, Madrid, last year. Covid raged then. It rages now, making this an achievement given that a cast of 14 and a large, jostling chorus are required. Some of our greatest singers take the ensemble roles and enhance them. Bryn Terfel, in superb voice, holds the stage as an unusually compassionate Captain Balstrode. John Tomlinson excels as Mr Swallow the tottery, totty-prone lawyer. James Gilchrist soothes as the smoothly supplicating Rector. Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Auntie), Rosie Aldridge (Mrs Sedley), Jacques Imbrailo (Ned Keene) and all the other townsfolk, named or not, manage to be more than caricatures.

Individuals each, they are the kind who prune their hedges and go for “sylvan walks” in the words of George Crabbe’s poems of Suffolk life, The Borough (1810), on which Montagu Slater’s libretto is based. When they turn into a faceless mob, out to destroy the misfit Grimes, the shock – and moral truth – is all the more stark. Their bloodcurdling cry of “Peter Grimes”, yelled while smashing an effigy to the ground, shatters every nerve. Clayton, digging deep into the role’s psychology, sang Grimes for the first time professionally in Madrid (after a university try-out 20 years ago).

He has the beauty of voice, the versatility and stamina to master every challenge this role throws at him. As hapless visionary, he pitches the high notes of Now the Great Bear and Pleiades with the same ease as did Peter Pears, Britten’s partner who first sang Grimes. Likewise, Clayton snaps into accusatory anger, roaring at his new apprentice (Cruz Fitz, impressively self-possessed) or pushing Ellen Orford (a sympathetic Maria Bengtsson) to the ground, all hope of redemption lost.

The ROH orchestra throughout, under Elder’s direction, realises Britten’s score, in all its sonic detail, with vivid passion. The young Britten had especially liked the “musical entr’actes”, as he called them, in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932). He made his own version in the six atmospheric interludes that shape the work’s unusual structure and give a dazzling solo voice to the orchestra.

“My bloody opera stinks and that’s all there is to it,” Britten told Pears when he was struggling to finish it. We must be thankful he did. It was a turning point for British opera. Each new staging, including Warner’s, reveals the work’s ever-shifting focus. Who is Grimes? Who bears the guilt? One aspect of this new staging caused unease, the risk of explaining the background to a production where nothing need be said. Britten’s Aldeburgh has been “updated” to a boarded-up coastal town with Ukip tendencies. Jaywick Sands is indicated – in the programme, interviews and background talks – as queasy inspiration. It is “officially” the poorest place in England. Already blighted by “poverty porn” tourism, the Jaywick community will thank no one for being made, in an opera house, an exemplar of mob rule. Peter Grimes is not primarily about poverty, but about the human condition in any time or place.

The Emerson String Quartet performing Shostakovich’s string quartet cycle at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
The Emerson String Quartet performing Shostakovich’s string quartet cycle at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Photograph: Mark Allan

Long after his encounters with Lady Macbeth, in 1960, Britten met Shostakovich. They became friends. Britten especially admired Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, saying his fellow composer “speaks most closely and most personally in his chamber music”. The Emerson Quartet have performed these works throughout their long career. Founded in 1976, with changes in personnel along the way, the gold-standard American group have announced their forthcoming retirement next year. As part of a long farewell between now and October 2023, they played the first nine Shostakovich quartets at Queen Elizabeth Hall over three evenings. I heard the last, in which No 7, dedicated to his late wife, and No 9, to his then current wife, provided ideal context to the centrepiece, Quartet No 8 in C minor Op 110 (1960).

In five movements without a break, this work pushes at the limits of desolation, from skittering anxiety to listless melancholy. Shostakovich, crushed by the Soviet regime and having reluctantly joined the Communist party, wept when he first heard it played. As so often, he uses the musical motto linked to his name (DSCH). The Emerson’s cellist, Paul Watkins, who triggers the first movement, anchored a powerful performance, with warmth, precision and attack, all four musicians sensitive to each detail, uniting as one. There were slips and smudges but the group’s supreme musicality shone throughout. Shostakovich dedicated this quartet to “the victims of fascism and war”, to which nothing need be added.

Thanks to some timely programming by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and their game-changing new conductor Vasily Petrenko, the week’s two strands came together on Wednesday. After Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, written the same year as Grimes and sparklingly played by the RPO, Pablo Ferrández was the incisive, lyrical soloist in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1: the very work that brought Britten and Shostakovich together, when they shared a box in the Festival Hall at its London premiere.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, with cellist Pablo Ferrández, left.
Vasily Petrenko conducts the RPO in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, with cellist Pablo Ferrández, left. Photograph: Mark Allan

First Petrenko, half Russian, half Ukrainian, spoke of his anguish at the war. and the power of music to unite. “But to play music, we need peace.” The concert ended with William Walton’s mighty Symphony No 1, its noisy finale bursting out in exuberant cacophony: not exactly peace but humankind at its most harmonious and courageously free.

Star ratings (out of five):
Peter Grimes
★★★★★
Emerson Quartet ★★★★
RPO ★★★★



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