Britten, Bliss

COMPOSERS: Bliss,Britten
LABELS: Cedille
ALBUM TITLE: Britten , Bliss
WORKS: Phantasy Quartet, Op. 2; String Quartet No. 3; Oboe Quintet
PERFORMER: Vermeer Quartet; Alex Klein (oboe)
This is an enterprising and useful coupling. Britten’s trim and deft little Phantasy Quartet is hardly over-recorded, while Arthur Bliss’s Oboe Quintet of 1927, with its delightful Irish-jig finale, has remained virtually unknown in comparison to his later Clarinet Quintet. Written for Leon Goossens and first performed in the USA, it emerges as one of his finest chamber works. Alex Klein, principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony, gives deeply affectionate, incisively characterised accounts of both these pieces, his rich and plangent tone coming into its own in Bliss’s sumptuous central Andante. The Vermeer Quartet provide admirable support and come into their own in a deeply-felt performance of Britten’s Third Quartet that tends to maximise the contrasts between the individual movements – the Ostinato and Burlesque really fly by, the intervening ‘Solo’ seemingly gripped in virtual stasis. The concluding Passacaglia is movingly done, very well shaped towards the painful and ambiguous ecstasy of the melodic climax. The sound-quality of Cedille’s recording is resinous and displays all three works at their best. There is no current rival in the Bliss. For the Britten Phantasy Quartet I’m still inclined to favour Sarah Francis’s reading with the Delmé Quartet, exemplary in its poise and wiry strength – but there’s no doubt this new version is highly competitive. With his Quartet No. 3 the field becomes comparatively crowded, but the Vermeer are strong contenders – only the Maggini Quartet, among current versions, seem to me to get closer to the heart of this elusive and elegiac score. Calum MacDonald