BRITTEN; PURCELL String Quartets (Doric Quartet)
The Doric Quartet’s beautiful Britten cycle was recorded in tandem with a series of concerts, greatly admired, in Snape Maltings last October. They describe it themselves as a ‘milestone’ since their formation in 1998, and in some ways it can be seen as the culmination of a long association both with Britten’s music and with Suffolk itself. They were formed at Pro Corda, the school for chamber musicians at Leiston, not far from Aldeburgh, and the Suffolk landscape, they tell us, has long been in their minds and imaginations when studying Britten’s scores. Hélène Clément, meanwhile, the Doric’s viola player, plays the composer’s own instrument, previously owned by Frank Bridge, who made a present of it to Britten when he left for the US in 1939.
The set also, however, reflects upon the indelible imprint left by Purcell’s music on Britten’s work, which is sometimes taken as read, though the juxtaposition here is effective and telling. The Second Quartet was famously written to mark the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, while the great closing Passacaglia of the Third was Britten’s last deployment of a form he took from his predecessor and made his own. Moreover, hearing the Purcell Fantasias, particularly Nos 8 and 9 (Z739 and 740) in D minor and A minor respectively, in proximity to the First Quartet is to be reminded of their closeness in mood to the patterns of introspection and energy that give the First both its structural integrity and its nostalgic tone, particularly in its long, finely wrought slow movement.
The performances are all superbly judged and controlled, balancing fragility with strength, restraint with great depth of feeling. The opening of the First, with its high, ethereal phrases offset by worldly, guitar-like cello twangs, is rich with ambiguities, while the Andante calmo, its long violin solo played with exquisite poise by Alex Redington, grieves quietly for the war-torn England Britten left behind during his American sojourn. In the Second, the Doric offset formal logic with deep emotional resonance, sweeping us through the ceremonies and wonders of the final Chacony with great refinement and dignity before we reach the final moments of assertion and grandeur. The Third, haunted by thoughts of imminent mortality, bids farewell to life and love with quiet dignity and gazes towards infinity as time ticks away towards the close: it’s wonderfully done, and you can’t help but be moved by it.
The early Divertimenti, played with considerable wit and elegance, provide some much-needed contrast to the intensity of it all, while the counterpoint of Purcell’s Fantasias is finely realised in performances of considerable weight and finesse. Comparisons here are perhaps invidious. I have great fondness for the Amadeus Quartet’s slightly more spacious way with the Second in their 1977 performance (Testament DVD, 2/06), and if you like a more overtly dramatic approach to this repertory, then you may prefer the Belcea Quartet’s fractionally more extrovert interpretations (EMI, 7/05). But this is a major cycle, engaging and profound in equal measure, and you need to hear it.