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In a year that has illuminated many dark corners of Britten’s oeuvre, the string quartets have remained in the shadows – until now.

On the eve of what would have been his 100th birthday, two distinguished quartets go head-to-head in works that are among his most traditional in tone and formal in construction.

What is most intriguing about the quartets is the way they bookend Britten’s mature career, the first two (and the Divertimenti) coming right at the start and the third at the very end: the composer didn’t live to hear its first public performance in December 1976 at Adeburgh. These recordings present a difficult choice.

The Brodskys fit the three quartets on to a single CD and are most at home in the Third Quartet, where their taut, hard-edged approach matches the terse, sinewy, mysterious quality of the music. But they make the first two quartets sound almost expressionist, as if trying to deny the young Britten’s English roots.

By including the three early Divertimenti, the Endellions nicely echo the divertimento-like quality of Britten’s last quartet, but they require a second CD to do so. Their playing is lighter, sweeter, less helter-skelter, bringing out the winsome beauty in Britten’s youthful inspiration – a style that paradoxically undersells the Third Quartet, because it lays bare Britten’s failing energies.

Britten

String Quartets 1, 2, 3 and Three Divertimenti

Endellion String Quartet

(Warner Classics), 2 CDs

Britten

String Quartets 1, 2, 3

Takács Quartet

(Hyperion)

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