Britten: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; Divertimenti

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: Britten
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; Divertimenti
PERFORMER: Belcea Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 557 9682
I haven’t forgotten hearing the Belcea play all three of Britten’s numbered quartets in a single concert marking the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death in 2001. And something of the power of that event has been carried over into these later studio recordings of the works. The ensemble plays up the contrasts in all three – the wistfulness of the ‘Solo’ movement followed by the forceful ‘Burlesque’ in No. 3, for example, or the changes of mood through the long ‘Chacony’ of No. 2. There’s bite and delicacy in equal measure, and the poignancy the players achieve in the Death in Venice-imbued finale of No. 3 is profound.

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There are surprisingly few recordings of these major works currently available and one of the best, the cycle from the Britten Quartet, still awaits resuscitation from the Collins vaults (despite the composer’s international reputation, there has been surprisingly little interest from non-British groups). The Maggini on Naxos provides a safe option, regardless of its budget price, and the fine Sorrel Quartet on Chandos adds value by including two of Britten’s juvenile quartets. The Brodsky’s (Challenge) is particularly successful, with a particularly moving account of No. 3 (reviewed July 2003). But for all-round excellence, the Belcea’s becomes the new benchmark for these works, surpassing even my previously favoured Amadeus in No. 2 (Decca), and they finish with a spirited account of the Three Divertimenti of 1936. Matthew Rye