Britten String Quartets Nos 1-3
If the focus on Britten’s centenary this year results in more performances of these Quartets, it will have done its job. While Bartók and Shostakovich’s Quartets are familiar on programmes everywhere, Britten’s – more than equal to the latter – still languish. In them we hear the composer coming closer to Bartók than in any other medium, so it’s appropriate that the great Takács Quartet, founded in Hungary, has finally recorded them. And they do not disappoint in this beautifully recorded set, which couples raw intensity with subtle refinement.
The breezily neo-classical First Quartet of 1941 fizzes with excitement, the slow movement has a shy wit, with pin-sharp detailing. They are gentle with the Andante calmo, aiming for sotto voce transparency, saving any tonal bloom for the climaxes. The Belcea Quartet (EMI Classics) produce a faster, more lustrous finale, but the Takács Quartet bring crisp textures and a wider range of colour underpinned by András Fejér’s vibrant cello. They brilliantly sustain the arc of the demanding, Purcell-drenched Second Quartet of 1945. I’ve always enjoyed the Sorrel Quartet’s reading (Chandos); the Takács share their spaciousness, but find a fragile quality which keeps the listener guessing. Their Vivace is visceral, though lacking the Belcea’s daring speed, as is the great Chacony, where inner voices have vivid life, here only marred by the viola’s strained intonation in the lunging figures of the opening theme.
The Third Quartet of 1945 requires yet more depth and extremity, and we’re rewarded in a remarkably spooky ‘Duets’, raspingly caustic ‘Burlesque’ and tender, measured finale. They capture the mystery of ‘La Serenissima’, if not all its radiance; the Elias Quartet’s (Sonimage) lingering account is indescribably touching. For a recording of all three Britten String Quartets, though, this release is highly recommended.