Benjamin Britten's spirit haunts Snape Maltings just as the ghosts of his final opera Death in Venice haunt his Third String Quartet. Resignation and isolation are etched into its tersely written pages. Venetian lagoons lap the waters of “Duets” and in “La Serenissima”, quotations from the opera can he deciphered. The Belcea Quartet placed Britten's final major work as the centrepiece of the first of their two Aldeburgh Festival recitals this weekend, completely getting to its slightly sinister heart.

Piotr Anderszewski and the Belcea Quartet © Matt Joly
Piotr Anderszewski and the Belcea Quartet
© Matt Joly

Clustered tightly around a nest of microphones, playing from tablets operated by foot pedals, the quartet gave an intense reading. Leader Corina Belcea captured the eerie fragility of “Solos”, mists swirling and shrouding the hall. Over its five movements, the Belceas swung dramatically from spectral pianissimos to fierce aggression.

It's possible to detect Britten's great friend Shostakovich in the abrasive spiccato and col legno effects of “Burlesque” – death behind the carnival mask – so it was appropriate that Shostakovich featured prominently in the Belcea's second programme of the weekend, given on Sunday. Their account of the String Quartet no. 3 in F major left the audience gasping for air. The Third was the only work composed by Shostakovich in 1946, indication of trouble ahead – the Zhdanov Decree was just two years away, yet targeted attacks against writers and composers were already under way. From its tongue-in-cheek opening, though, only the briefest of clouds skud the horizon, the Belceas almost Haydnesque in their light touch. Trouble brews in the second movement – the staccato equivalent of treading on eggshells – before the demonic power of the third movement Scherzo was unleashed. With the Belceas, this was a fierce gallop to the very edge of the abyss, bow hairs flailing. The last two movements take the listener to an even darker place before reaching an unsettling peace.

Piotr Anderszewski joined the quartet for more Shostakovich, the Piano Quintet, composed in 1940. Opening with a Bachian piano solo, grandly played by Anderszewski, the string quartet then echoes this en masse, before things settle into more intimate dialogue. Ensemble was tight, though with the string players forming such a closed arc it gave the impression of the piano as something of an outsider, an uninvited guest at the party. In five movements, just like the Third Quartet, moods lurch dramatically, the highlight being the central Scherzo, cleanly executed, the piano's upper register crisply articulated. Shostakovich only visited Aldeburgh once, but one could almost feel him smiling at the quintet's wistful sign-off.

The Belcea Quartet and Jörg Widmann © Sam Murray-Sutton
The Belcea Quartet and Jörg Widmann
© Sam Murray-Sutton

Haydn and Mozart didn't always fare quite as well on Saturday evening. Inner voices, second violin (Axel Schacher) and viola (Krzysztof Chorzelski), were nicely brought out in the profound Adagio of Haydn's D major “Sun” Quartet, but the jollity of the gypsy-style finale was obscured behind too severe a frown. Mozart's Clarinet Quintet was given a civilised, occasionally lethargic reading, joined by Jörg Widmann whose lean tone and minimal use of vibrato robbed it of some warmth. The Larghetto flowed purposefully, and the Belceas made the Minuet trip daintily, though Widmann's upward leaps from the chalumeau register in the second Trio (the clarinet entirely sits out the first) were a tad heavy. The finale was earnest, if lacking a little joy.

Widmann opened Sunday evening's recital with the UK première of his Shadow Dances for solo clarinet. Each of the three movements took place at a different set of music stands, the third one miked up to catch the percussive clatter of keys and Widmann's fierce scream. The work is a ragbag of flutter-tonguing, overblown harmonics and side-key trills, but didn't outstay its brief welcome. 


Mark's press trip to Snape was sponsored by RDMR