Perfection, of a Kind: Britten vs. Auden – Southbank Centre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Director: Phillip Breen

Putting the vs. between Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden sounds like this show, presented at the Southbank Centre by The London Review of Books, will be a competition, but really Perfection, of a Kind is a history of friendship and collaboration. However, with the focus more on the music than the poetry, perhaps Britten wins in a way.

The two great Modernists were great friends to begin with and when Auden and Christopher Isherwood wrote the somewhat impenetrable drama The Ascent of F6 in 1938, they approached Britten to compose the score. Parts of it are played tonight by the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, and it’s a complicated mix of emotions created by two pianos and percussion. Also, as part of F6, Britten put Auden’s now most famous poem ‘Stop All The Clocks’ to music. Here, it’s sung magnificently by Johnnie Fiori and the poem is a completely different beast to when it’s recited by John Hannah in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Between the music, Alex Jennings (who, of course, played Britten in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art), Barrie Rutter and Fiori describe the relationship between Auden and Britten, and it’s a fascinating, if sometimes slightly difficult to follow, insight into the process of making art. It’s a format that Dead Poets Live has perfected in its examinations of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and the works of Sylvia Plath among others. In later life, Auden sent Britten letters berating him for not working hard enough and for not resisting the lure of bourgeois blandness. One exceptionally unpleasant letter is returned to Auden ripped into pieces.

However, poetry enthusiasts may feel a little disappointed that there aren’t more poems in the programme and Auden is made to look a bit of a bully, very different from the hagiography he receives in BBC Radio 4’s recent series on his work. Still, the music played is beautiful, especially Simple Symphony played by two violins, a viola and a cello. These strings easily demonstrate how Arvo Pärt was moved to compose his elegy for Britten in 1977 on hearing the news that the British composer had died.

Auden and Britten’s most famous collaboration is Night Mail, made for the GPO Film Unit in 1936, comes at the end and Rutter, in a particularly express version, makes sure the evening finishes with a flourish. Auden’s poem speaks of older times when the post arrived the next morning and when letters were delivered twice a day. We took snail mail seriously in those days. The words date Auden in a way that his other poems have managed to avoid.

Whether the LRB and the City of London Sinfonia have more competitions up their sleeves remains to be seen. Blake and Vaughan Williams? Yeats and The Waterboys? Let’s hope this marriage of music and poetry becomes a regular series.

Reviewed on 5 November 2023

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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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