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The Britten centenary has, by its very nature, expended a lot of energy looking back over the composer’s life and work. Alongside triumphant pieces of scholarship, and superb productions and renditions of cherished works, we have had debates about the composer’s potential syphilitic demise and performances of less worthy works from the catalogue. Looking across these events, as well as surveying recent advances in scholarship and performance, Britten’s Century is an up-to-the-minute if somewhat partial appraisal of the composer and his legacy.

Editor Mark Bostridge offers an impressive line-up of contributors, including Michael Berkeley, Peter Parker, Blake Morrison, Alan Bennett, Colin Matthews and Ian Bostridge. Berkeley offers a fond, poetic remembrance of his former mentor, while Bennett explains the basis of flatulent play The Habit of Art. Better perhaps than both is the more analytical eye of Christopher Isherwood’s biographer Peter Parker. He maintains a sage distance from what Berkeley knew and Bennett presumes.

Indeed bias is a problem with a lot of writing about Britten, though Colin Matthews’ insider piece on Death in Venice deftly avoids kowtowing adulation. Slightly less firm is the basis of Paul Kildea’s appraisal of Britten’s biographers, a subject decidedly close to home given his recent publication, though he modestly admits that the absence of Philip Brett’s planned biography is a major lacuna in the bibliography.

Brett’s contributions to the volume (part of a body of older but renowned essays) are some of the best in the book. He probes and challenges though, like the other writers represented, cannot help but laud his subject to the hilt. But then this volume was created with the intention of ‘celebrating 100 Years of Benjamin Britten’. You may prefer something with a bit more teeth, for instance Kildea’s recent biography, which proved a bit too toothy in places but is more likely to dominate the next century than this slightly mixed collection.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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