BRITTEN; PURCELL Chaconnes and Fantasias
My first port of call for comparisons in the Britten was the Belcea Quartet, initially in the first movement of the Second Quartet, where their account of the opening is starkly lugubrious, with melody and harmony achingly entwined. Turn then to the Emersons’ more straightforward approach and it’s more a case of mind over emotion, which is fairly characteristic of their intelligent approach to both works. In the agitated, muted Scherzo, the Emersons mark a dramatic dynamic contrast between the spiky staccato arpeggio accompaniment and the fierce unison top line. With the Belceas, the unison idea rules; and while the spiccato comes across well, it’s less prominent. The Chacony finale opens to a unison theme followed by three sets of exploratory variations. Here the Belcea’s added breathing space – over two minutes’ worth – compounds the music’s eerie effect. After the jagged opening motif, both quartets admit a good deal of tonal warmth.
The groundsprings of the remarkable Third Quartet lay with the Amadeus Quartet, Britten’s creative advisors, who played it to him at his Aldeburgh home just weeks before he died, and then performed the work in public at Snape Maltings two weeks after his death. The voice here is very different, the third-movement Burlesque (marked to be taken fast and with fire) always strikes me, at least in its opening bars, as an angry-sounding reference to the finale of Brahms’s Second Quartet, surprising given the widely acknowledged fact that Britten was no fan of Brahms’s music, or maybe not so surprising given the music’s combative mood. Here the Belceas and the Emersons are even-stevens, more or less. Again the Belceas are slower in the finale, marginally so this time, though there’s some glorious solo playing on offer from the Emersons, especially from cellist Paul Watkins.
On the new disc both quartets are preceded by Purcell Fantazias, while the first track features the older composer’s Chacony in G minor, the prime mover for the like-named finale of Britten’s Second Quartet. As with the two quartets, Purcell’s masterly essays are played with intensity and a winning sweetness of tone; and, viewed as a whole, the programme works exceedingly well, though I wouldn’t want to be without either the Belcea Quartet or the pioneering Amadeus Quartet (Decca), whose affectingly sensitive account of the third movement of the Third Quartet, frail though it occasionally may be, focuses some desolate music that once or twice hints at acceptance.