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Perfection of a Kind: Britten vs Auden, City of London Sinfonia, QEH review - the odd couple | reviews, news & interviews

Perfection of a Kind: Britten vs Auden, City of London Sinfonia, QEH review - the odd couple

Perfection of a Kind: Britten vs Auden, City of London Sinfonia, QEH review - the odd couple

An exuberant celebration of twin giants – but with a chapter missing

Full steam ahead: Johnnie Fiori, Alex Jennings, Matthew Kofi Waldren, Barrie RutterAll images Belinda Lawley

“Underneath the abject willow/ Lover, sulk no more;/ Act from thought should quickly follow:/ What is thinking for?” In 1936, early in their tempestuous friendship, WH Auden wrote a poem for Benjamin Britten that urged the younger artist to pursue his passions – musical and erotic – and curb his fearful longing for comfort and safety.

The poet’s hectoring insistence that the composer should embrace audacity and risk marked a partnership that began in hero-worship – the timid, tentative Britten’s for the bold and brilliant young bard – and ended in the composer’s violent rejection of his one-time mentor. When, in 1953, Auden wrote to criticise Gloriana, Britten tore the letter to shreds. Yet when Auden died in 1973, the news prompted “a storm of tears” in Aldeburgh. 

The first in a planned series of literary-musical soirées presented by the City of London Sinfonia with the London Review of Books, Perfection of a Kind brought this fertile, fraught relationship to the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, the Sinfonia’s melange of words and music enlisted a stellar cast that included Alex Jennings and Barrie Rutter as (respectively) the musical and literary giants, with West End musicals doyenne Johnnie Fiori (pictured below) as vocalist in cabaret songs from the 1937 experimental drama The Ascent of F6. The cabaret-cocktail approach worked a treat, and the QEH audience justifiably relished it. However, this format did leave a yawning gap. The absence of a Lied-friendly tenor to perform Britten’s settings of 1930s Auden poems – the song groups Our Hunting Fathers and On This Island, and individual lyrics such as “Underneath an abject willow” itself – meant that the whole drama missed a crucial act. Fiori did the great “Funeral Blues” from F6 splendidly (yes, the one that Four Weddings and a Funeral made mass-market famous), but hers was not the voice for the poems that set Britten on the road to mastery as an interpreter of shadowed, nuanced verse. What we had was beautifully delivered; but it lacked a key dimension. We got the pizazz but not all the poignancy of their bittersweet entanglement. 

Jennings and Rutter projected not just the words of the two artists themselves but snippets of later commentaries by critics, biographers and dramatists (an extract from Alan Bennett’s play The Habit of Art). We heard how, in the 1930s, the pair bonded as restless apprentice virtuosos who could command almost any mainstream style but yearned to stretch the traditions they inherited: “brilliant ventriloquists” both, but also change-hungry innovators. The Sinfonia’s tight and agile playing let us appreciate young Britten straining at the formal leash: in the Simple Symphony, given in a punchy string-quartet reduction, and the exhilarating early Sinfonietta – executed with panache all round, and lit up by Karen Jones’s flute. Alexandra Wood led an ensemble that brought crunch, bite and sinewy control to Britten’s youthful seesaw between pastoral nostalgia and hard-edged urbanity. In the selections from F6, Britten’s bracing jazz modernism glittered, with the two pianists (Berrak Dyer, Cliodna Shanahan) and twin percussionists (Glyn Matthews, Jeremy Cornes) reminding us of the jagged rhythmic shock that such work brought to the staid West End scene of 1937. 

The evening’s show-stopper, though, came with the celebrated words and music for the 1936 GPO Film Unit documentary Night Mail: a little masterpiece of the accessible, community-minded art that would later mean so much to Britten, but which the strenuously cosmopolitan Auden soon rejected as a talent-sapping trap. Britten’s delicious train music chugged, raced, snorted and hooted; Rutter (pictured below) launched gloriously into Auden’s swaying, rattling script, making it over as an exuberant Thirties rap (“The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,/ The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring…”).The letters we heard suggested that the friendship floundered on Britten’s hunger for bourgeois respectability, a protective circle of admirers and what Auden dismissed as “a warm nest of love” back in Britain – with the strong implication, oddly sidestepped in Phillip Breen’s fluid production, that the musician yearned to make his homosexuality acceptable in polite society while the maverick writer stayed in New York to keep walking on the wilder side. Britten, though, grew deadly serious about his mission or destiny as a “national” and public composer. His wide-ranging legacy surely justifies his choices. Perfection of a Kind reframed a broad dispute about the social role of art and artists in strictly personal terms. The lack of a voice to carry haunting Britten-Auden songs of the 1930s such as “Nocturne” (“Now through night’s caressing grip/ Earth and all her oceans slip…”) also felt like a lost opportunity. Still, this opening CLS/LRB collaboration showcased the freshness, flair, and frequent cheek, of kindred creators who plundered the past to enrich the cultural future.

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