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This monumental, omnisciently edited and annotated series of Britten’s letters concludes with the composer’s fiery last achievements away from the piano, such as the opera Death in Venice and his Third String Quartet, despite which the composer remained a pianist in his inmost being. In 1974, after a heart ailment sidelined Britten (1913-1976) from his decades-long role as onstage accompanist to the tenor Peter Pears, Murray Perahia took over the role. Despite Perahia’s own exquisite musicality, Pears wrote to Britten: ‘I know & if no one else does & I think Murray does, how many hundred miles it was from the music making of you and me.’ This beatific ideal remained firmly in Britten’s mind as he embarked on piano-related endeavours to promote boy protégés, writing to friends such as Fanny Waterman and Clifford Curzon when in a quandary over Ronan Magill, a then-teenage prodigy born in Sheffield in 1954 and still active as a pianist and composer today. Britten could be alternately ice cold, stout-hearted, sly, courageously forthright and psychically tormented, but was always brilliantly creative, as these letters reveal. They also confirm what was revealed by the careful documentation assembled in John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children (Faber and Faber, 2006): that Britten was a pedophile who sometimes pounced on the objects of his affections. Despite the media’s ongoing fascination with Jimmy Savile-like exposés, this darker apsect of Britten’s life does not seem to have marred celebrations of the composer’s centennial this year.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing