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With this hefty tome, a 21-year biographical project comes to a close. Charting a complex mixture of health problems, the demands of the Aldeburgh Festival and an unbending will to create, this is a gripping account of Britten’s final years. But rather than proffering a glossy one-sided view of Britten’s life, Reed and Cooke are notably unperturbed to show the less attractive side of the composer’s personality and some of the skeletons still in his closet. The composer’s reported bitchiness is in plentiful supply, there is the odd reconciliation and there are always the boys.

Britten’s friendship with Ronan Magill, a young man he nicknamed ‘Tyger’, pinpoints just the kind of thing that, during this anniversary year, will find renewed interest with those hoping to upset pedestals. The editors present a clutch of the letters – affectionate from and to Magill, while more critical about the young man to others – without judgment but also minus the favourable prejudice so often assumed of the official Aldeburgh camp. As Reed writes in his introduction – a considerable and satisfying narrative in itself – ‘the full account of their complex relationship is yet to be told’.

Yet it is not these tattletale crushes that ultimately draw the reader’s attention but the longevity and continued affection of Britten and Pears’ relationship. The composer and singer’s mutual dedication to each other is completely clear and, although their relationship was no doubt punctuated by the occasional extraneous flirtation, theirs was a brilliant marriage long before the Civil Partnership Act and our current ideological spats.

Weaving through such insights is Britten’s music, inextricably linked to his daily life and reflective of his passions and concerns. Letters to and from Shostakovich and Rostropovich, the foundation of Faber Music, the administration of the Aldeburgh Festival and the preparations for premieres testify to Britten’s national and global achievements and his boundless energy right to the end. Reed and Cooke have honoured that legacy brilliantly by amassing and annotating this material and giving us the best record of the composer’s life.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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