Britten: The Music for String Quartet review – group’s bright sound illuminates early works

Of the 200 minutes of music in this collection, Benjamin Britten’s three major string quartets account for significantly less than half. And while it is convenient to have all the string pieces that Britten composed in his teens and early 20s placed alongside the mature works – the First Quartet was composed in 1941, the Second in 1945, and the Third, his last completed major score, not until 1975 – the historical context they provide is not always especially meaningful, except as a reminder of just how precociously accomplished a composer Britten was.

Britten: The Music for String Quartet album cover art
Britten: The Music for String Quartet album cover

These recordings by the Emperor Quartet were made between 2005 and 2011. The discs were released individually at the time – I reviewed the first of them, containing the second quartet, in 2010 – and they have only now been brought together as a set, with the ordering on each unchanged, and all three of the original booklets included in the box. It’s a bit of a jumble and sometimes makes selecting a single work rather unwieldy; the final disc consists entirely of early pieces, including the Simple Symphony, a Quartet in F, composed when Britten was 14, and the 1932 Phantasy for string quintet, with which he won the Cobbett chamber music prize at the Royal College of Music.

Benjamin Britten at the Royal Festival Hall in London in October 1965.
Benjamin Britten at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in October 1965. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

The Emperor are at their most convincing in these early works, when their bright sound and matter-of-fact approach are well suited to music that sometimes comes close to the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. In the later numbered works they seem to leave quite a lot unexplored. There’s too often a brittleness and lack of warmth about the playing that is rather offputting, and in particular makes the Third Quartet, already a rather chilly experience, even bleaker. The Takács Quartet’s outstanding performances of those works, released in 2013, quickly reveals what’s missing here.

This week’s other pick

The tenor Andrew Staples makes a Britten collection of his own for Harmonia Mundi, bringing together the three great orchestral song cycles, with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The recorded competition in all of these works is even more fierce that it is for the quartets, of course, not least from Britten’s own recordings with Peter Pears, for whom two of the cycles, the Serenade and Nocturne, were composed. Staples is hugely impressive in both of those works, reinforced in the Serenade by superb solo horn playing by Christopher Parkes, but he seems to me to be at his very best in Les Illuminations, where he brings just the right amount of steeliness to its powerful declamations.

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