LABELS: Collins Classics
WORKS: String Quartets by Elgar, Walton, Britten, Tippett
PERFORMER: Britten Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 70222 DDD
The British musical renaissance that began a century ago has given us some major achievements, and although string quartets are not central to it, this collection based on recent issues is useful. The members of the Britten Quartet clearly think as one, and paradoxically impart to this music a Continental intensity, instead of parading its Englishness. This is often effective, although there are gentler ways of handling Elgar, Walton and Britten. It best suits the Tippett quartets, although those seeking completeness should note the absence of his recent Fifth.
I’m glad to hear the Elgar Quartet played for once with this degree of expressive intensity, and the same quality proves valuable in the Walton, a disquieting piece that is essential listening not least for its impassioned slow movement. Britten is handled with some flair, although not all his quartet music is included.
It’s fascinating to see his complex personality revealing itself over the years, but the account of the Simple Symphony, although accomplished, lacks joy, and the finale is frenetic rather than suggesting the composer’s own word ‘frolicsome’. Similarly, the playing of the three numbered quartets is too earnest and tonally weighty.
Some years ago, Tippett told me that he thought he put his personal tensions into his music, and certainly his first four string quartets offer tautness along with the visionary vitality characteristic of all his best music. The Britten Quartet are on safer interpretative ground here, and make for compelling listening, though I still find them short on charm.
Collectors may be warned that the four movements of No. 2 are numbered in the booklet as tracks 5-8 instead of 4-7. The recordings, from two locations (Bristol and Snape), are admirably detailed, if at times glaring. Christopher Headington