This is a splendid way for the members of the Doric Quartet to enter their third decade, for they have done nothing better on record. They tell us that they first came together at Pro Corda, the school for young chamber music players, at Leiston in Suffolk, not far from the epicentre of Benjamin Britten’s life. To lend extra authenticity and inspiration to these sessions at Snape Maltings, violist Hélène Clément was using Britten’s own 1843 viola by Francesco Guissani of Milan, passed on to him by his teacher Frank Bridge. This is not a ‘complete’ set of Britten’s Quartets, such as was undertaken by the Endellion Quartet in 1986. It consists only of the four main published works. The 1950s and the 1960s were allowed to pass without any new String Quartet from Britten – perhaps this is a reflection on the ensembles of the time, as he would surely have responded to a commission.
The earliest music here is the Three Divertimenti from the early-1930s, beginning life in 1933 as a suite of five pieces entitled Alla quartetto serioso, with the subtitle ‘Go play, boy, play’ from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. By a process of attrition and substitution, the work introduced by the Macnaghten Quartet in 1933 became a triptych consisting of a new piece and two of the original five. A more official 1936 première by the Stratton Quartet of a revised version, now called Three Divertimenti, was a failure and Jack Westrup wrote a scathing review in the Daily Telegraph, causing Britten to withdraw the work. It was performed again (by the Gabrieli Quartet) and published only after his death. The three pieces, which take only ten minutes to perform, can now be heard to be inventive, typical of his string oeuvre and very enjoyable. The ‘March’ is done with great panache by the Doric players, right down to the whimsical ending; the ‘Waltz’ is delicately handled at the start and more robust in the Con fuoco section; and the ‘Burlesque’, almost Spanish in places, is terrifically played.
Things get serious with the First Quartet, commissioned in 1940 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge during Britten’s stay in America and premiered by the Coolidge Quartet in Los Angeles on 21 September 1941. On 30 October 1941 the Coolidge players premiered Randall Thompson’s D-minor Quartet at the Library of Congress and ended the recital with a repetition of Britten’s D-major, delighting the young Englishman: both he and Thompson were awarded the Library of Congress Medal for services to chamber music. Of several repeat airings of the Britten, one in New York on 28 December was attended by the composer, who told Mrs Coolidge that the musicians “played it wonderfully”. Yet, despite this auspicious start, the work has always been underrated. I consider it a masterpiece.
The first such work by any composer should announce a new voice, and this the D-major Quartet’s slow introduction emphatically does, with its “high, bright chords that seem a response to Californian sunlight”, to quote David Matthews. The Doric players catch the unearthly atmosphere of this opening and in general the high violin writing is very well handled. Here we have a British composer with an international outlook – in his booklet note, Mervyn Cooke suggests Stravinsky (whom I do not hear) as an influence, as well as Copland, who is a possibility. Britten’s modernism is still somehow English, however. The tempo variations, as the introduction keeps returning to interrupt the Allegro vivo, are very well done by the musicians. The Allegretto con slancio (con slancio had already been used by Britten in the first of the Divertimenti) begins really quietly and its explosive effects go off like fireworks: the players achieve excellent rhythm and the final flourish is beautifully timed. The Andante calmo again begins amazingly quietly: there is eloquent playing by all four and the first violin’s solo is delicately done; the cello has a superb intervention and one passage shows that Britten was acquainted with Verklärte Nacht; altogether we hear very original sonorities in this movement, of a kind already explored in the Frank Bridge Variations. The Molto vivace gets off to a good start with terrific rhythm; the players catch the fugitive scurrying atmosphere of some passages and there is a fantastic finish.
The Second Quartet, written in 1945 to mark the 250th-anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death and first performed by the Zorian Quartet on the date itself, November 21, is even more assured and has a wholly individual sound from first bar to last. It is in C-major, which irresistibly reminds me of Osian Ellis introducing his performance of the Harp Suite which Britten had written for him: “It is in C-major, Britten being one of the few who can still write in C-major.” Three basic themes are announced at the start of the opening movement, all three are developed and they are recapitulated at the end, before the coda. The players are very good at delineating the characters of the themes. The Scherzo is muted but is often quite loud, lending a suppressed quality to the sonorities; the Trio is more concerned with chiaroscuro and this preoccupation dominates the return of the Scherzo theme. All of this is successfully handled. The massive Finale, a Chacony in homage to Purcell, states a lurching ground bass and follows it with twenty-one variations consisting of three sets of six, marked off with cadenzas, and a final set of three. The Doric Quartet’s performance has an inexorable quality, culminating in the final chords in which the key of C is emphatically established.
The Third Quartet of 1975 was composed in the shadow of Britten’s 1973 heart surgery, which did not go well. One of Hans Keller’s better ideas was to revive his previous suggestion that Britten should write another Quartet. Four movements were completed but the composer had to take a holiday in Venice to recover and the fifth (final) movement (incorporating material from Death in Venice) was managed only by dint of having Colin Matthews play Eric Fenby to Britten’s Delius. The first movement, ‘Duets’, is beautifully played here, with wonderful control of dynamics – which, indeed, is a feature of the whole set. The ‘Ostinato’ is very fast, as directed, and ends delicately. The ‘Solo’ features fine playing by the first violin, a nicely timed move into the ‘Lively’ section with even more superb playing by Alex Redington, and a suitable subsiding into the return of the quiet mood. The Dorics plunge into the ‘Burlesque’, which is very characterful, with amazing precision in the ‘Quasi Trio’. Then we come to the long Finale, ‘Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima)’: the former is well played and the entire ‘Passacaglia’ is both lovely and moving – the musicians keep the pulse of this haunting refrain going without ever seeming metronomic, and dynamics are scrupulously observed. The movement times at ten minutes, which is pretty well ideal.
The Purcell Fantasias are nicely played, and I can imagine them going down well in a concert – after all, both the New Music Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano used to play early music on their modern instruments – but with so many fine recordings available on viols, these pieces are hardly necessary. I am also mildly surprised that the Dorics did not recruit an extra violist and have Hélène Clément play the single note in the Fantasia on One Note, as Britten himself did on his only viola recording. I remember Jean Stewart telling me that it was by no means simple to play this single note, as it had to be given a different colour, depending on what was going on around it. Instead of the Fantasias, or in addition to them, we might have had the 1931 D-major Quartet which Britten revised not long before his death. The two discs are not very full.
The recordings, produced and engineered by Jonathan Cooper with assistance from Cheryl Jessop and Rosanne Fish, and edited by Cooper, are absolutely splendid, airy enough but with the cello line always audible in the Maltings acoustic.
The Doric Quartet’s performances are good enough to withstand any comparisons, but readers may care to be reminded of some staging points in the discography of these works. The initial breakthrough came from the Zorian Quartet, who made a beautiful 78rpm recording of the Second Quartet (with the Purcell Fantasia as a filler). The First Quartet was recorded in mono by the Galimir Quartet and in stereo by the Paganini Quartet – the version from which I learnt to love the work. Everyone ought to know the 1963 recording of the Second by the Amadeus Quartet, for two reasons: first, it is an absolutely spiffing performance, and second, it is perhaps the best recording to show off what this ensemble could achieve tonally. Another towering performance of the Second Quartet came from the Janáček Quartet of Brno. The Amadeus players were the first to record the Third Quartet and, despite their age and frailty, the performance still has immense authority and authenticity. Since then we have had the Endellion’s complete set on three discs from 1986, plus their second set including just the three numbered works and the Divertimenti. I would also like to mention the 2008 recordings of the Second and Third Quartets and the Divertimenti by the Elias Quartet. Of course there are other worthy entries in the Britten Quartet discography but these are the performances that have specially caught my ear.