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Britten’s Endgame

Thu Nov 14, 9-11pm, BBC4

That this is Benjamin Britten’s centenary year appears to have given licence for Britten-related programmes whose premise would otherwise seem rather tenuous. The latest is a documentary from the usually incisive John Bridcut, which, despite enjoyable musical excerpts, at two hours rather outstays its welcome as it morbidly dissects Britten’s final years.

The British composer, who died in December 1976, had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition in the early 1970s, but postponed undergoing surgery until he finished his final opera, ‘Death in Venice’. Ironically, the effort of creating this work – ‘a supreme gift’ for his lifelong musical and domestic partner, the tenor Peter Pears – made his condition worse and probably shortened his life. Based on Thomas Mann’s novella about a dying composer, rarely has a late work had such poignant resonance.

However, this is not a documentary about that opera, but rather a random excursion through the events of Britten’s final years, with additional sporadic explorations of his last two masterpieces, the mini-opera ‘Phaedra’ and the sublime String Quartet No 3, before returning to ‘Death in Venice’ in a desperate bid to fuse the trajectory of Britten’s illness and death with his art.