The Emerson Quartet performs Britten’s String Quartets Nos 2 and 3 and chamber works by Purcell

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COMPOSERS: Britten,Purcell
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Britten * Purcell
WORKS: Britten: String Quartets Nos 2 and 3; Purcell: Chacony in G minor; Fantasias Nos 6, 8, 10 and 11
PERFORMER: Emerson Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 481 5204

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Britten composed his String Quartet No. 2 in 1945 for the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, and its earliest recording, by the Zorian String Quartet, included Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note as a fill-up, with Britten himself playing the Note on his viola.

Now, in this well thought-out programme, the Emerson String Quartet preface Britten’s last two quartets with four of Purcell’s four-part Fantasias, and begin with Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor – the precedent for the sets of variations on a ground bass that conclude both of the Britten quartets. The Emersons further bridge the gap of centuries by delivering the Chacony and Fantasia No. 10 with plenty of vibrato, but adopting a more ‘authentic’ viol-like timbre for the other fantasias – setting up a link with the glassy sonorities Britten asks for in the introduction to the finale of his Third Quartet.

The readings, as one might expect, are full of insightful nuances, but the outstanding feature is their structural cogency. Where the outer movement of Britten’s Second can sound sectional in looser-limbed performances, here they are held together in single sweeps. The Emersons also bring out how the apparently sudden burst of fast music in the opening movement of the Third actually derives from a tiny cross-rhythm in its exposition. Only in its unearthly slow movement does leader Philip Setzer fail quite to attain the transfixing sweetness one recalls of Norbert Brainin when the Amadeus Quartet gave the premiere to a subdued Snape Maltings audience in December 1976, just a fortnight after Britten died.

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Bayan Northcott