Britten: A film by Tony Palmer.

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Digital Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Benjamin Britten: A time there was…
WORKS: A film by Tony Palmer.
PERFORMER: Artists include Peter Pears, Leonard Bernstein, English Chamber Orchestra, Steuart Bedford
CATALOGUE NO: DVD DC10017 (NTSC; Stereo; 16:9 picture ratio)
A time there was… when Britten was only three years dead; when the Britten Estate seemed as unchanging and as infallible as the papacy; when Britten’s Children had not yet come back to haunt him. At that time, in 1979, Tony Palmer made the film of the composer’s life and music which won the Prix Italia and which, even today in its new digital restoration, is an alluring portrait. Palmer’s documentary is confidently structured and skilfully edited, with deft intercuts and juxtapositions which move at a brisk but never restless pace. It bears all the hallmarks of an early piece: there is no omniscient narrator, no outside voice, no weighing in the balance, no judgement. The tale is told anecdotally through the voices of those closest to him. And although the ‘dark’ side of the man and the music is alluded to, the only passing references to anything potentially negative come obliquely from his brother (‘he was quite good with his fists’); and from Britten himself who, recalling a serious disagreement with a colleague, quotes Kathleen Ferrier begging him, ‘Do try and be nice!’. So, watching this gently reverent film 30 years on, it’s hard not to feel some degree of frustration at the inevitable lack of in-depth insight, reflection and debate within the authorial perspective. I missed too, any revelation of Britten as a European, and of his all-important relationship with Rostropovich and Shostakovich.

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Those making a new personal discovery of Britten, though, will find this judicious chronological selection of Britten’s preoccupations as an artist through key stages in his life – enlivened with plenty of archive footage – both truthful and compelling. Hilary Finch