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Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op 33a

composer
arranger

 
As a child I spent many holidays walking through the wind and rain on Aldeburgh beach. My dad grew up in Suffolk and actually played the violin for Britten in Orford Parish Church as a child. The Four Sea Interludes were the first of Britten’s pieces that I got to know in depth through playing the harp part. I remember being struck by how accurately they captured the spirit of that part of the country, whether the sounds of the sea or the bustle of a Sunday morning with church bells ringing across the landscape. A couple of years ago I was invited to give a recital as part of the Aldeburgh festival and was asked to include the small amount of organ music written by Britten. I wanted to try and do a transcription of ‘Dawn’. The project grew from there and a year later, I had finished transcribing all four interludes. The last couple of weeks of the transcribing process were spent late at night on the organ of Ely Cathedral, trying out different things and making the necessary adjustments. It was this process that made me want to record this entire disc at Ely. I’m extremely grateful to Boosey & Hawkes and the Britten estate for all their support throughout this process, and for allowing me to release this recording.

The interludes themselves are from the opera Peter Grimes, and they function as orchestral scene changes, taking the listener between different physical locations in the story whilst also exploring the changing psychological state of Grimes. In the opera each interlude flows seamlessly into the following scene, but Britten rewrote the endings of each so that they could be performed as stand-alone pieces. Whilst Britten’s orchestration forms the starting point for every movement, I’ve also tried to imagine what the pieces might have looked like had they been written for the organ, occasionally making substitutions of sounds to allow the transcriptions to work on as wide a range of organs as possible.

The first movement, ‘Dawn’, comes between the Prologue and the opening of Act 1 of Peter Grimes, and is simultaneously beautiful and unnerving. Britten splits the orchestra into three distinct colours: the flutes and violins play a high, unison theme, clear as crystal; the clarinets and harps punctuate this line with running arpeggios which call to mind sudden gusts of wind on the beach, whipping up the spray of the waves; the lower strings and brass interject periodically with menacing, quiet chords.

In many ways, this was the most obvious of the interludes to translate onto the organ, although I spent a great deal of time dithering over the right sound for the lower brass chords! Great swells of sound are often achieved through the addition of quiet reeds on the organ, but these seemed to lack the warmth needed to emphasise the ambiguity of the chords in the original. In the end, I chose to use the swell strings and open diapason—a slightly different sound, but one that I hope captures the spirit of the music.

The clanging thirds of the French horns that open 'Sunday Morning' create what is arguably the most recognisable passage of the whole opera. Finding a way to replicate this sound was by far the biggest challenge in making this movement work for the organ, but one which was also a lot of fun. After a great deal of trial and error, the required sound was eventually achieved through sustained chords in the left hand, punctuated with a double-pedalled quaver at the start of each bar on a slightly louder reed (at the same pitch). This movement is a complete joy to play; when I first played it at Ely I was struck by the way in which the bird calls floated around the building as if they weren’t coming from the organ at all. For organs with a chime stop, there is a chime part written into the last section. For this recording we used the tubular bells called for by Britten in the orchestral version—thanks to my producer, Adrian Peacock, for serving as an excellent tubular bell stand.

'Moonlight' forms the bridge between night and day, following the death of Grimes’ second apprentice. The gentle rippling of the sea is heard through pulsing chords in the lower strings, horns and bassoons. These chords are punctuated by beams of light from the flutes and harps, the light of the moon reflecting off the waves. The beauty of this movement is coloured by a constant sense of underlying anxiety and uncertainty, achieved partly through the prevalence of 2nd inversion chords. I spoke earlier about how one of the moving things about quiet organ playing is the sense that so much power is being held back; I think exactly the same thing can apply to the sea, and is encapsulated by this movement.

The biggest challenge in transcribing this movement was trying to replicate the pulsing chords in the opening. Whilst string and wind instruments can grow into a note once it has started, this is much harder to do on the organ, or at least much harder to do without sounding contrived. I did, at one stage, attempt to open and close the box a little on every chord, but found it to disrupt the flow of the piece and the sense of stillness so important to the success of this movement. Instead, I decided to use variation of articulation, playing with the onset of each note to give a little more movement without detracting from the bigger picture.

Whilst 'Storm' is the final interlude of the four, in the opera it is actually heard in Act 1. It begins with Grimes outdoors, watching the storm clouds approach over the building sea. The eerie calm of the middle of the movement contains a nervous energy, created partly through extreme polarisation of textures. Double basses, double bassoons and the bass drum sustain a low rumble on a bottom E whilst a harp glissando takes the strings and wind up towards the top of their range. The whole orchestra playing quiet, chromatic, staccato quavers interrupts these moments of nervous stasis. The movement ends in a pub where people wait out the storm, with the storm itself lashing the windows and threatening the warm safety of those inside.

This movement presented a number of challenges, the first of which was the sheer number of ideas happening all at once. It was a fascinating exercise poring over the score, listening to a vast number of different recordings and deciding which were the most important ideas that simply couldn’t be left out. There are several moments in this movement where the left hand, right hand, left foot and right foot are all going at full pelt with completely different ideas (most notably in the final build-up), but that is part of what makes the movement rather fun to play. I spent several hours trying to figure out the best way to replicate a harp glissando. Glissandi themselves are one thing, but this glissando really had to be in D major—this is easy to achieve on the harp through changing the pedal setting, but much harder on the organ (without tearing your fingers to shreds). I eventually found a way to fake this effect by playing a glissando in D major for the first octave before switching to C major as the glissando sped up, using my other hand to pick out a couple of key notes that sustained the effect of D major all the way to the top. The other tricky moment was at the very end of the movement, taking the organ from pianissimo to triple forte in the space of just 25 bars. Whilst this is just about possible without a registrant there to press buttons, it involves quite a lot of gymnastics, so my thanks must go to Anna Hallett for her wonderful button pressing skills in this final section!

from notes by Anna Lapwood © 2021

Recordings

Images
Studio Master: SIGCD688Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Hyperion sampler - September 2021
FREE DOWNLOADHYP202109ADownload-only sampler

Details

No 1: Dawn
Track 9 on SIGCD688 [3'36] Download only
Track 13 on HYP202109A [3'36] Download-only sampler
No 2: Sunday Morning
Track 10 on SIGCD688 [4'11] Download only
No 3: Moonlight
Track 11 on SIGCD688 [5'15] Download only
No 4: Storm
Track 12 on SIGCD688 [5'06] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD688 track 12

Storm
Artists
ISRC
GB-LLH-21-68812
Duration
5'06
Recording date
6 January 2021
Recording venue
Ely Cathedral, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Adrian Peacock
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. Images (SIGCD688)
    Disc 1 Track 12
    Release date: September 2021
    Download only
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