Tuesday July 19th, 2016 - I pulled this John Bridcut/BBC film off the shelf at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center today, played it immediately on getting home, and found it thoroughly engrossing. The documentary focuses of the final years of the great composer's life when - despite failing health - he churned out such masterworks as DEATH IN VENICE, the cantata PHAEDRA, and the 3rd String Quartet.
Archival footage of Britten - conducting, playing the piano, chatting and performing with his life-companion Peter Pears, and greeting Queen Elizabeth II at the Aldeburgh Festival - is interspersed with interviews with both music-world luminaries (Dame Janet Baker, Steuart Bedford, Sir Charles Mackerras, Mark-Anthony Turnage) and people who knew the composer personally or were care-givers (David Hemmings, Sue Phipps, Rosamund Strode, his surgeon Dr. Michael Petch, and the tirelessly dedicated Rita Thomson). Thru their words and the reading of intimate letters, the film gives us a vividly personal portrait of Britten in the last three years of his life.
Then there are the superb musical excerpts, seemingly staged in the studio specially for this DVD. Absolutely splendid choral work from the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, including parts of Hymn to the Virgin, written when Britten was 16 years old. Tenor John Graham-Hall is most impressive as Aschenbach in scenes from DEATH IN VENICE; another tenor, Allan Clayton, joins horn player Michael Thompson in some gorgeous passages from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings; the Fitzwilliam String Quartet's ravishing playing of portions of the String Quartet #3 makes us doubly regretful that it was Britten's last substantial work.
In a magnificent performance, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly is a thrilling Phaedra; her singing is juxtaposed with Dame Janet Baker's spoken recollections of collaborating with Britten on the cantata's creation.
Britten died of heart disease in 1976 at the age of 63, five years younger than I am now. He is buried next to Peter Pears in the Parish Churchyard, Aldeburgh.