Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 [26:38]
String Quartet No. 2 in C major, Op. 36 [30:02]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94 [27:58]
Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea, first violin, Axel Schacher, second violin, Krzysztof Chorzelski viola, Antoine Lederlin cello)
rec. June 2014 Studio Davout, Paris
EUROARTS DVD 2072768 [94 mins]

The Belcea Quartet is now established as one of the world's leading chamber groups, having won many international accolades since its establishment in 1994 in the UK, where they are still based. The Romanian violinist Corina Belcea and the Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski are the two founder members, and the current line-up was completed by the French musicians Axel Schacher (violin) and Antoine Lederlin (violoncello).

The three string quartets by Benjamin Britten seem now to have become part of the twentieth century canon of the form, alongside those of Bartok and of Britten’s friend Shostakovich. They were written over a period of 34 years, the first two premiered in 1941 and 1945, and the third, Britten's last major work, in 1976.

In these live performances the Belcea Quartet succeeds equally well in the extrovert exuberance often found in the first two quartets and in the bittersweet valediction of the third. Their playing is formidably accurate and has plenty of expressive nuance. There is always a fine tonal balance, even in dense passages when all the instruments are playing loudly, and with some of them double-stopping. They never push beyond the sonic boundaries of the quartet medium. The exposed high-lying opening (ndante sostenuto) of holds no terrors for them, and they attack the finale’s exciting combination of sonata and fugue at a headlong tempo, but with precision. These performers seem so inside the music that they can take risks and pull them off. The Second Quartet has similar challenges, and its opening is noticeably atmospheric, the music reluctant to emerge from its initial stasis into the llegro proper. The ivace central movement is superbly alert, its tight rhythms perfectly articulated. It is swift, but never a scramble. The great chaconne finale is wonderfully sustained, its inexorable unfolding accumulating tension right through to the series of sledgehammer final chords.

The Britten Third Quartet was premiered at Aldeburgh just two weeks after Britten's death. I was at that performance and well recall it, as the occasion was of course a sombre one, with Peter Pears looking ashen in his box at the side of the stage. The music seemed then a new departure, highly original in its textures and in the finale, truly memorable. That movement is a passacaglia, a favourite Britten form – witness the examples in Peter Grimes, the Violin Concerto, and of course the Second Quartet. In the last quartet the Passacaglia finale meditates on themes from Britten’s final opera Death in Venice. The Belcea expound this elusive and allusive piece with exemplary clarity right from its opening duet for second violin and viola. Corina Belcea’s poise of phrasing and intonation in the third movement (called “Solo”) are ravishing, while the scherzo (called Burlesque, perhaps in homage to Mahler’s Ninth, another valediction) is gruffly insistent here. The Belcea list the Amadeus amongst their mentors, so perhaps they worked on this score together – certainly their playing reminds me of the Amadeus’s interpretation. After that 1976 premiere, the Amadeus played it at again the following year at the Schwetzingen Festival of 1977, and the performance is now available on Hänssler Classic. That is an impressive document, but the Belcea Quartet are no less moving in this filmed account, which achieves something special, even haunting. Overall this film captures superb musicians excelling in music they clearly know and love.

The filming aesthetic here is quite involving, placing the viewer on the platform and at times almost inside the quartet, with some very close close-ups. The setting of Paris’s Studio Davout and its small audience are seen only at the ends of each work, so their applause is retained. If you prefer as a viewer to be placed in the hall, this might be a distraction, but I felt it aided the intimacy of the experience, especially in the Third Quartet, which has always felt a very private piece – the leader of the Amadeus said Britten “composed his own death” into it. It becomes easier to concentrate oneself when one sees the players’ concentration and the intensity of their interaction. Film also makes it easier to see how the individual instruments are deployed in the music, who is playing what when, which otherwise would at times be known only when following a score. The sound recording (with the usual option of stereo or 5.1 surround) is very good throughout, with a suitable amount of ambience and capturing both the purity and the graininess in the string textures.

The Belcea’s earlier recording on a pair of CDs of the three quartets added Britten’s Three Divertimenti of 1936, a valuable forerunner of the numbered quartets (review). It is not the same line-up as here, as the quartet had a different second violin and cellist back in 2003-4. But they are recognisably the same group in their approach to the music, and that account was highly praised (including here at MWI) and seen as the best of all in some quarters. But the choice of sound only recordings is now quite large, as the Maggini, Brodsky, Takács, Endellion (twice), Britten, and Sorrel quartets have all set them down on CD. I have also especially enjoyed the Emperor Quartet’s version on two BIS SACDs not least for the quality of the surround sound. Certainly every lover of chamber music should have a reco rding of these terrific works, and the Belcea Quartet, on CD or on this evocative DVD, is a splendid guide to their glories.

Roy Westbrook

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