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Originally published to coincide with the Britten centenary and now reissued in paperback, this concise and well-written biography draws effectively on almost every available major source to provide a valuable synthesis of modern scholarship and opinion, while also expressing its author’s devotion to his subject. Occasionally, this borders on hagiographic effusion, although Powell does not avoid being critical of Britten’s personality and even his music, where he feels it is warranted.

For the lay reader, the book is ideal because the author is not a musician and discusses the music in purely descriptive terms. His literary background offers many insightful observations about Britten’s sources, particularly for the operas. Especially valuable is Powell’s coverage of the relationship with Rostropovich, arguably the most signifi cant artistic partnership of Britten’s life, that with Peter Pears notwithstanding. Drawing on Britten’s correspondence and personal contemporary reminiscences, Powell offers a compelling account of how these two musical titans became such close and intimate collaborators, both in the creation of major works and in performance. Powell often feels compelled to defend his subject at all costs, especially where others have levelled criticism. This is somewhat counterproductive. By repeating the critical barbs of the past and then answering them, the originals are then given further currency. Besides, I have always thought Thomas Beecham’s tart dismissal of Billy Budd as the ‘Twilight of the Sods’ to be one of the funniest put-downs he ever made.

The book comes with many rare photographs, a very useful bibliography, and is well indexed. Notes are placed at the end of the book, which may irritate some, although these never provide additional details of fact, only citing published sources used, so can be safely ignored until needed. For a well-written distillation of Britten’s life and art, Neil Powell’s biography can be thoroughly recommended, particularly to those who want an accessible and comprehensive account as a preface to further study.

BRENDAN G CARROLL Read the full review on Agora Classica


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