Classical Pride: My Beloved Man – Barbican, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Conductor: Nicholas Chalmers

Under the banner of Classical Pride, The Fourth Choir, London’s LGBTQ+ classical choir, presents My Beloved Man, a moving programme of songs and readings celebrating the love of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. The songs, arranged for acappella choir, consist mainly of pieces by composers beloved of Britten as well as some of his own. These are interspersed with readings selected from the 365 letters written by Britten and Pears to one another. BBC Radio 3 presenter, Petroc Trelawny and actor, Samuel Barnett, who recently played Britten at the RSC in Mark Ravenhill’s Ben and Imo, offer sensitive readings.

The Fourth Choir, under guest conductor, Nicholas Chalmers, is crisply professional, intensely musical and warmly expressive. In the opening piece, Purcell’s Thou Knowest Lord the Secrets of Our Hearts, the singers do not look at their scores, singing out directly to us. This intensifies the resonance of the words: we are tacitly being invited to consider both the intimacy of Britten and Pears’ relationship and its necessary secrecy. Between themselves, the couple had no hesitation in talking about their marriage, but many of the letters express the frustration of telephone calls in which they must watch what they say. The enduring intensity of their love for one another, however, is there in letter after letter. ‘Life doesn’t matter without you,’ Pears writes to Britten, on one occasion, while Britten repeatedly expresses his love for Pears, his ‘beloved man.’

The first half of the concert takes us up to the end of WW1. Standout pieces include Michael Tippet’s Deep River and, in a world premiere, Isobel Waller-Bridge’s gorgeous lullaby-like I Let Go to words, commissioned by Classical Pride, to a text by refugee Dana Cholod. In between are some very funny extracts from the letters. Aaron Copland’s boyfriend is described by Pears as a ‘tubby celestial coal heaver’ and there are some nice indiscretions about members of the Royal Family they meet. A short section of vibrant folk songs, including Imogen Holst’s The Cobbler and Britten’s Green Broom mirror the lighter-hearted tone of some of the extracts.

The second half begins with an exuberant piece of Britten’s Gloriana, and then two glorious madrigals by Monteverdi. Nicholas Chalmers’ arrangement of Somewhere from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story somehow feels a natural extension of Monteverdi’s love songs, its plangent longing for that place where the lovers can finally be together quietly suggesting the coming of death that will divide them. in 1973 Britten articulates his distress at what he feels is his failure to write. ‘I must get to be a better composer,’ as he works on Death in Venice. He dies a year later.

Fittingly, the evening ends with a spine-tingling version of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, When I Am Laid in Earth.

Reviewed on 5 July 2024

Glorious, moving evening

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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