BRITTEN String Quartets Nos 1 - 3
The Belcea Quartet have become prominent players on the chamber-music scene. In the concert hall, their rather balletic style of performance can (in my experience) be alienating, but in these Britten recordings you can appreciate their high level of technical accomplishment without the risk of visual distraction.
Collectors familiar with any of the earlier sets of the quartets may not warm immediately to the Belcea’s exceptionally dramatic way with the music’s contrasting materials. Yet I’ve found almost nothing forced or eccentric here. The hell-for-leather tempo adopted for the First’s finale is genuinely exciting, not a scramble, and although there are a few obtrusive, fussy details in the outer movements of No 2 the overall impression is powerfully convincing. No 3 is even better, at least in the earlier movements, bringing a sense of barely suppressed anger to some of Britten’s most personal and allusive music. In the last movement the phrasing is occasionally over-pointed: yet, despite tempi which make this account significantly faster than the excellent Magginis and considerably faster than the stately Brodskys, the effect reinforces the true consistency of tone and character which underpins this notably diverse score.
Recorded at Potton Hall, this is one of the best-engineered quartet discs to come my way in recent times. But I would question the decision to include a second disc with only 36 minutes of music on it when more early Britten could easily have been accommodated. Even if the guide-price is that for one and a half full-price CDs, it seems a missed opportunity.