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From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio A Special Audio Report: Britten’sPeter Grimes
original plastic packaging from DECCA
We have not convened in the MusicWeb
Listening Studio for several months because of the Covid lockdown.
We also had the misfortune that a little while ago the Jeff Rowland
amplifier exploded with a very loud bang, even though it was switched
off. It was duly collected by Music Matters of Solihull who informed
us the repair was likely to be in excess of £1500 and would take several
weeks – we are still waiting. We were loaned a temporary amp of
slightly lesser pedigree to be going on with (but still costing over
John Quinn was not able to join us so Len Mullenger and David Dyer sampled
the new Chandos recording of Peter Grimes conducted by Edward
Gardner. JQ will do a full review of this, so we decided to sample the
sound quality of selected excerpts but did not concentrate on either
of the main characters in their major arias – we have left John
to do that.
The obvious comparison was the Decca recording with Britten conducting;
an analogue recording from 1959. It was salutary to recall that LM first
heard that recording by borrowing it from the Leeds Record library when
he was still in the Sixth form at school! Old timers may remember that
at that time Decca was experimenting with plastic cases rather than
boxes. That did not last long.We are comparing this with the 2020 Chandos
SACD CHSA5250(2) (although we only sampled the CD layer in two channels).
The Decca engineer was Kenneth Williamson (Producer Erik Smith) with
the Royal Opera House Orchestra recorded at the Walthamstow Assembly
Hall, London; the Chandos recording was produced by Brian Pidgeon with
the Bergen Philharmonic. The Chandos set was recorded in Grieghallen,
So how does the Decca/Britten sound? Should it be firmly labelled Historic
and put on the back shelf?
We started with the Storm interlude so we could get a measure of the
recorded sound. We must say immediately that in isolation both are very
good recordings and you would be equally happy with either. The Decca
soundstage was wider but shallower, it was the more sonorous but still
fully detailed. The Chandos had a more central sound but much deeper.
It was spacious and with wider dynamics. The Decca gives more of an
impression of an actual performance, giving a better idea of the structure
of the music. The Chandos has a greater clarity. But LM actually found
that too much. It reminded him of looking at a 4K Ultra HD HDR television:
the picture is unbelievably sharp and detailed with enormous colour
depth but is not something he would want to live with in his living
room. The same is true of the fine resolution Chandos recording –
it is an exhausting listen; but I reiterate we were only listening in
two-channel sound, albeit in very fine two-channel sound. It is difficult
to criticise the Britten recording and it is a much more comfortable
One problem we had switching between the two recordings is that the
Chandos is cut at a much lower level. This would not matter at all if
you were just listening to one recording or the other continuously.
However, when we were listening to ‘From the Gutter’ we
found that having adjusted the Chandos to the Storm interlude it was
then too quiet for the nieces and the orchestra was very quiet. Gardner
seems to go in for very wide dynamics. The Britten was more constrained,
allowing more of the orchestral accompaniment to be heard. Britten’s
singers are also better integrated – the Chandos was over-detailed
and more fragmented.
Both recordings were very good in the ensemble piece ‘Old Joe
has gone fishing’. Grimes’ voice was more prominent in the
Chandos. The nieces are well separated with more space around each person,
but the Decca is easier to assimilate. In the Chandos, the singers in
the chorus were more easily discerned and instruments were more sharply
delineated; this is not always to the benefit of the overall picture
which becomes too fragmented. However, throughout the Chandos percussion
is splendidly realised.
We did listen to one solo piece – Grimes’ ‘Now the
great Bear …’ Here we thought there was a clear advantage
to the Decca. It is a difficult piece, although it was written specifically
for the voice of Peter Pears: Stuart Skelton takes the title role for
Chandos. We felt again that the Chandos dynamic range was too exaggerated,
with the Decca sound staging being better. I can hear Brian Pidgeon
echoing Robert von Bahr (BIS) that he only records what is there with
Our conclusion was that the Decca/Britten should certainly not be written
off as Historic. We were listening to the original transfer on three
discs. There was a later remastering at middle price but without a libretto.
I have contacted Decca to say that this recording deserves to be re-issued
as a Blu-ray Audio disc. It was a revelation when that treatment was
given to the War Requiem. I received the following reply:
‘I passed the message on to the catalogue team and they said many
thanks for the enquiry, it’s good to hear what might be of particular
interest as they continue to progressively future-proof reference recordings
All digits crossed.
We hope to resume normal service in the Listening Studio in the near
future. Since our last session in February we have accumulated quite
a backlog of new recordings in excellent audio.