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This engaging, multi-faceted subject was waiting to be addressed, so this major study is very welcome. Cameron Pyke deals with every aspect, beginning with ‘Earliest and Lifelong Russophilia’. A recurring theme is Britten’s passion for Tchaikovsky, dating from the 1920s, a time when such high regard was uncommon. Other chapters consider Britten’s attitudes towards the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky respectively. How much did each composer influence Britten? The answers are complex – by no means clear-cut, except in isolated instances. Few major composers of strong individuality are too obviously influenced by their contemporaries, as those influences which do occur are effectively subsumed.

Pyke works hard to draw parallels, but many turn out to be relatively minor – often a case of similar ideas being adopted for different purposes. The detailed comparative readings of works such as Shostakovich’s second cello concerto and Britten’s Cello Symphony will be better appreciated with scores to hand.

With performers we are on more secure ground. Britten was powerfully influenced by Rostropovich (who wouldn’t be?) but also by his wife Vishnevskaya. The soprano part of the War Requiem was intended for, and remarkably suited to, the unique characteristics of her voice. When Rostropovich first played through her music he said, ‘He’s painted your portrait!’.

Though Britten is often described as a withdrawn and difficult man, his modesty and kindness are also mentioned in these pages. Of course, a personal slight would be neither forgotten nor forgiven, and thus Stravinsky’s acid remarks do explain Britten’s eventual lack of interest in his music. His admiration of even favourite composers was usually selective, while he found Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Scriabin unattractive. Other questions include: did Britten influence younger Russian composers such as Schnittke? How deep was Britten’s interest in Russian literature?

The 17 indices comprise interviews (with Lord Harewood, Donald Mitchell, Hochhauser, Vishnevskaya, Rozhdestvensky and others) and testimony (Mackerras). These are generally revealing, although there is some repetition. One error which should have been spotted is a reference to Shostakovich’s viola sonata as a ‘Concerto’, while Britten’s nurse, Rita Thomson, becomes ‘Thompson’ on p 274.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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