Having collected all 6 volumes over the past few years, it is only now I am beginning my journey through these impressive, scholarly volumes.
Donald Mitchell's 60+ page introduction is a lucid and insightful introduction to Britten's life and work. However, what follows is simply jaw dropping. The diaries and letters are superbly annotated, illuminating and bringing to life these early communications. The annotations for a single letter often run to 5 pages or more - and they are absolutely fascinating. This is an extremely detailed but definitely not a dry read.
OK, Britten's correspondence contains much banality e.g. details of meals, shopping trips, haircuts, tennis matches etc. But his communications also portray in vivid detail a bygone era. In particular, they provide valuable insights into music making and concert going in the 1930s. Reading this volume is like stepping into another world. The writing is so unpolished and spontaneous yet so vibrant and alive.
Britten's personality leaps off the page. He is revealed as an extremely critical, frequently churlish and indeed rather unlikeable young man. His petulant and flippant dismissal of so many conductors and musicians of the period (especially Adrian Boult) does little to endear him to the reader. Nevertheless, I found certain passages, for example those describing the death of his mother, really quite moving. I also love the fact that Mitchell does not correct Britten's dreadful spelling. This gives a touching sense of authenticity.
The volume is peppered with reproductions of concert programmes, manuscripts and other documents and my only criticism is that these are so small they are rendered illegible. A real pity.
Overall, this superb volume provides an extraordinary insight into the mind of the developing composer and is a compulsive read for Britten enthusiasts. I relish the prospect of experiencing the other 5 volumes.