Given the plethora of musical riches at this year’s Britten Weekend it seems churlish to lament what was missing. After all, nobody sold this three-day festival as a completist event. Yet a work as substantial as the unnumbered String Quartet in D, written when the composer was 17 and rehabilitated by Britten himself in his final years, was a curious absentee from the party.

Doric String Quartet at Snape Maltings © Matt Jolly | Snape Maltings
Doric String Quartet at Snape Maltings
© Matt Jolly | Snape Maltings

But what a swell party it was. Six concerts of Suffolk’s finest home-grown produce garnished with side orders of Mozart, Copland and Elgar (his Piano Quintet), plus a hefty serving of Korngold (the Piano Quintet and Piano Trio), nourished the ears and spirit. At their heart were gripping performances of Britten’s mature chamber works by the Doric String Quartet, four musicians of rare taste and virtuosity who were steeped in this repertoire on the back of a week spent recording them for Chandos.

From the early Three Divertimenti (the mercifully retitled attenuation of a more ambitious project Go play, boy, play) to the elaborate harmonies of his String Quartet no. 2 (1945), Britten’s progress as a chamber composer over less than a decade was charted with telling conviction. Yet the earliest work they included, the Phantasy Quartet of 1932, has a tremendous melodic verve all its own and, from John Myerscough’s creeping cello entry onwards, can rarely have been delivered with such lyrical freedom. There was an operatic tow born of confidence to this colourful quarter-hour.

Although the First String Quartet was composed during Britten’s US sojourn there is little of America within its pages. Whereas Dvořák’s New World adventures had been a celebration of discovery, Britten instead was wracked by a yearning for what was lost – a quality that would become a lifelong feature of his music. As a rule that would turn out to be childhood, but more plausibly on this occasion it’s the Englishness he’d left behind that troubled him. The four-movement work opens with an aching Sostenuto that not only inhabits the same emotional terrain as the Violin Concerto’s Passacaglia but also appears to quote two works as yet unwritten: the letter scene from The Turn of the Screw and God’s call from Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac.

The second movement’s instrumental tag games were a visual treat thanks to the players’ gleeful dips into vulgarity (just enough, never too much), and the Andante calmo third placed Alex Redington under the spotlight as the sweetest imaginable legato issued from his first violin. Britten’s finale, full of musical tickles early on, ended with an assertive display of harmonic brilliance that never lost sight of the music’s playfulness.

That future call to Abraham seemed to echo more strongly than usual in the Dorics’ scintillating account of the Second Quartet, where a similar motif closes the first movement. Not even divine intervention, though, could have prepared the listener for the group’s overwhelming account of the work’s closing Chacony, a 17-minute slow-burner that starts in fateful-sounding unison before fraying into threads that interlace with a searching need. It’s that yearning again, but here writ large. No wonder Britten waited 30 years after this before returning to the quartet form. The Doric players located the music’s elusive pulse and infused its every beat with virtuosic commitment, their instinct for drama intensifying as the score’s textures thickened and stretched. It was bravura playing.

Doric String Quartet, Kelly Burke and Andrew Wincott © Matt Jolly | Snape Maltings
Doric String Quartet, Kelly Burke and Andrew Wincott
© Matt Jolly | Snape Maltings

By the time Britten got round to the Third Quartet his entire career as an opera composer had intervened. His Op.94 includes fragmentary themes from his final stage work, Death in Venice, notably in the Recitative that prefaces the rocking Passacaglia at its close, and never more than here has it seemed indeed to be all about death. The dying Britten may have labelled this final section as a tribute to his beloved Queen of the Adriatic, but the abiding mood in the Dorics’ hands was less La Serenissima than serenity: a peaceful song of farewell.

Uniquely across the weekend the Third Quartet was given on the main Maltings stage where it had first been heard in 1976, just two weeks after the composer’s death. (The other five concerts, which had included guest performances by several up-and-coming chamber ensembles, were given in the acoustically luminous Britten Studio.) The work’s half-hour of affecting, magical music was made all the more intense by knowing that the Dorics’ eloquent violist, Hélène Clément, now plays Britten’s own instrument.

The quartet was actually given twice. Ahead of the heart-tripping complete performance its five movements were used as interludes between the segments of a dramatised Henry James short story, The Beast in the Jungle. What could easily have been a disastrous clash of arts turned out to be expressively moving thanks to the enactment by actors Andrew Wincott and Kelly Burke of an adaptation (by director Robin Brooks) that shrewdly focused on the wordy story’s Brittenesque aspects. It’s the tale of a man who realises, fatally late, that all life’s incidental joys have passed him by as he waited for some prophesied but undefined big event to materialise. For one night only, the music’s characteristic ache became transfigured into a tone poem that conveyed all the protagonist’s despondency and eventual reconciliation. Shattering.

 

Mark's accommodation at Snape was funded by RDMR

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