Britten String Quartets
On the evidence of the Brodsky Quartet’s Challenge Classics recording of Britten’s First Quartet (10/02) Michael Oliver concluded that theirBritten cycle ‘looks like being a distinguished one’. The second disc easily fulfils that prophecy: and anyone deterred by thequestionable (though not illogical) decision to complete the first disc with another first quartet in D – Tchaikovsky’s – rather than with more early Britten (apart from the Three Divertimenti) should welcome the pairing of Britten’s two masterpieces for the genrethis time round.
MEO made no comparisons, and these remain irrelevant to the extent that there’s no other freestanding pairing of Nos 2 and 3currently available. However, my preference among cycles completed in the 1990s, theMaggini Quartet’s super-bargain-price discs, contained particularly strong accounts of the Second and Third quartets, and these remain highly recommendable, as well as unbeatable value. The Brodsky are nevertheless the team for the new century, and at full price they take advantage of the super-refined Snape Maltings acoustic to offer performances of great intelligence and expressive power.
I can’t recall a reading of No 2 which conveys the dramatic passion and lyric sweep of Britten’s marvellously idiomatic string writing morepersuasively than this one does. At two points during the long finale I felt that the inner voices were insufficiently distinct, the presentation of the all-pervading chaconne theme under-articulated. But these are momentary quibbles rather than sustained reservations, and it can certainly be argued that the overall interpretation of the movement benefits from the kind of contrasts which these effects represent.
In general, No 3 unfolds at slightly broader tempi than those chosen by the Maggini, and the episodic recitative that opens the finale seems a shade too expansive for its own good. Otherwise, this is exemplary, with immaculate ensemble and a sense of spontaneous expressive engagement bringing out the full statureof this deeply-felt, valedictory music. Amemorable disc, then, and an outstandingBritten cycle.