Benjamin Britten String Quartets 2 and 3 / Three Divertimenti (Elias String Quartet) Review

Released 2010.  

BBC Review

The Elias Quartet catches Britten’s powerful emotional undercurrents superbly.

Andrew McGregor 2010

The Elias Quartet has been steeping itself in Benjamin Britten’s world. On the cover they’re pictured on the beach near Britten’s home in Aldeburgh, gazing out to sea, absorbing the sounds, reflections and changing light that so fascinated the composer. Leader Sara Bitlloch talks of the impact the manuscript of Britten’s Third Quartet had on them when they saw it in Aldeburgh; how faint the writing was, how he’d written on only two staves rather than the four you’d expect, as his final illness sapped his strength. A few years ago they played the piece to Norbert Brainin, the former leader of the Amadeus Quartet, who’d worked on the Third Quartet with Britten and gave the premiere at Aldeburgh shortly after the composer’s death. When they reached the end there was a long silence, before Brainin simply said: “Ben wrote his own death.”

Britten might have agreed: the Third Quartet ends, he said himself, with a question. It’s unsettling and unresolved, after a desolate last movement written during Britten’s final visit to Venice. It’s haunted by the spirit, characters and some musical quotations from his last opera, Death in Venice, and the Elias Quartet catches the powerful emotional undercurrents superbly. The colours, the subtlety of the sounds and the sensitivity of the playing are telling, and in Britten’s Second Quartet – written for the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death – they show that they’re not afraid to explore the violence of the central Vivace, making it snap and bristle with positively Bartok-ian physicality. The repeated bass line of the final Chacony, with its 22 variations and cadenzas in homage to Purcell, is tellingly delivered, and there’s a sense of mortality and sadness here that’s a foretaste of what’s to follow more powerfully, and more personally, in the Third Quartet some 30 years later.

Between the quartets we’re offered colourful accounts of Britten’s Three Divertimenti from the 1930s, and the focus of Sonimage’s recording adds to the emotional intimacy.

There’s seriously stiff competition in the Britten Quartets on disc, perhaps most recently from the Belcea Quartet, who offer all three of the Britten Quartets on two discs. Let’s hope there’s a second disc to come from the Elias Quartet, as this one is already an imaginative and deeply satisfying alternative.

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