Britten: String Quartets Nos 2 &3

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Sonimage
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 2 & 3; Three Divertimenti
PERFORMER: Elias Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SON 10903

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There’s no shortage of good recorded versions of the Britten Quartets at present. In particular the Belcea (EMI), the Maggini (Naxos) and the Sorrel (Chandos) Quartets each offer depth of insight and strength of overall conception, yet each different enough to raise comparison above crude competition. These newcomers have plenty to offer too.

I particularly like the variety of colour and meaning they bring to the transformations of the Second Quartet’s opening motif – once criticised as ‘unidiomatic’. The scherzo (Vivace) also has a fine Bartókian edge (well caught by the recording): there’s no need to play down the aggressive side of Britten’s character. The final Chacony keeps up its steady underlying pace well, too, but I do miss the depth of sadness and desolation the Sorrel and particularly the Maggini bring here – and both of those seem to understand the final ambiguous affirmation more profoundly. 

The suspicion that the Elias somewhat over-egg the expression from time to time deepens in the Third Quartet: again there’s plenty of passion and a strong feeling for shape here, but less of the shadows and half-lights, the tart ironies and aching ambiguities. That said, the sense of radiant calm in the central ‘Solo’ movement is nothing short of marvellous, and there are other strong moments along the well-plotted way. 

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These performances would probably more than satisfy in the concert hall. But beside the best on disc they don’t quite offer enough. The Maggini Quartet would be my first choice for all three works – two discs, but at bargain price it’s irresistible. Stephen Johnson