Britten never came to Spain. And the relations between his music and this country have suffered from a bizarre history. For example, Peter Grimes had been scheduled for a Spanish première in Barcelona in 1954 – but the performance was cancelled because of a diplomatic conflict between Spain and Britain. After that, it was programmed for the 1993/94 season. But on that occasion, it had to be cancelled because of a fire, which destroyed the Teatre del Liceu. Nonetheless, Britten is increasingly admired in Spain, as we move ever further away from the dominance of radical avant-garde discourses.

Emerson String Quartet
Emerson String Quartet

In commemoration of Britten’s centennial, the Centro Nacional de Difusión Musical, in collaboration with the British Council, has programmed a concert series entitled “Britten Classics”. This small series, with just five concerts, is one of the most interesting proposals for this season at the Auditorio Nacional de Madrid, and had one of its highlights in the concert offered by the Emerson Quartet on 21 November – the eve of St Cecilia’s Day, and indeed Britten’s birthday).

The Emerson Quartet started its professional career in 1976. Its members had remained unchanged from 1979 until 2013, when cellist Paul Watkins replaced David Finckel. Although their recordings of Shostakovich’s quartets have been universally acclaimed, Britten’s music has not appeared very often in their programs. But, if we consider the large number of associations that exist between the music of Shostakovich and Britten, we can conclude that the North American ensemble is a very suitable fit for the performance of Britten’s Second and Third Quartets – on this occasion, combined with a selection of works by Henry Purcell.

The concert started with Purcell’s Chaconne, in the arrangement for string quartet that Britten made in 1948. From the very beginning, the quartet showed its distinctive, compact sound, as well as its impeccable intonation. But the opening surprise occurred a few bars later, with the first, amazing intervention of Mr Watkins: the public was left open-mouthed, as such a deep, expressive phrasing in the cello was completely unexpected. Certainly, despite being a newcomer, Mr Watkins appears to be the backbone of the group.

After two more gems by Purcell, the audience had the opportunity to enjoy Britten’s String Quartet no. 2, composed in 1946 – when the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death was commemorated. It has several points of connection with Shostakovich’s musical language. This fact is made evident from the first phrase, those double octaves perfectly enunciated by the members of the Emerson Quartet. The reading was brilliant in general terms. The hints at expressivity present in some of Purcell’s fantasies were replaced with a vibrant, intense, and sometimes almost violent performance. This level was maintained even in the final “Chacony”, the longest movement of the quartet and, in my opinion, the weakest one in terms of musical structure. An observation has to be made: the intensity of the sound of Eugene Drucker, who performed as first violin here, seemed to be insufficient at some points. Was it a question of volume or just an acoustical phenomenon?

This imbalance did not reappear during the second half of the concert, centered on Britten’s Quartet no. 3 (1975), with Philip Setzer this time playing first violin. More than 30 years have passed since Britten had last composed a quartet. He was approaching his final days – he died in 1976, and didn’t get the chance to listen to this last quartet. It is a fascinating work, unusually divided into five movements; each one of them has the qualities of an aphorism, mixing a wide diversity of styles, techniques, and aesthetic influences. The first one (“Duets”) creates a hypnotic atmosphere thanks to an extremely delicate use of dissonances – dissonances that were traced with precision by the quartet, thus demonstrating why Goethe defined a string quartet as a group of “four rational people conversing”. Some imbalances arose during the third movement, but they were solved in the fourth movement, performed with a balance of gusto and passion. The work reaches its highest point in the last movement, “Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima)”, which recalls his opera Death in Venice, some of whose motifs are quoted in the recitative. The Emerson Quartet responded to this challenge with attentiveness, exploring a wide range of sonorities to express the contrasting moods that coexist in this piece, from the most dramatic to the most joyful or even humorous.

The final, pleasant surprise came with the encore: the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 59 no. 3 in C major. This performance, a genuine tour de force, was probably not the most polished piece, but it was certainly expressive and virtuosic, and it was recognized as such by the audience.