Britten And Purcell Inspiringly Paired

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Since Benjamin Britten paid tribute to his great predecessor Henry Purcell many times over as performer, arranger, and composer, it comes as no surprise that Purcell’s Fantasias and Britten’s Second and Third quartets are compatible disc mates. Indeed the gnawing dissonances in Purcell’s opening Chacony in G minor may well have informed Britten’s Second Quartet finale named after and based upon the same music.

Excellent recordings of Britten’s quartets are always welcome, and the Emerson Quartet’s demonstrates impeccable ensemble values and easy embrace of the composer’s imaginative mastery of the genre. They approach the Second Quartet’s unison, recitative-like opening with a dynamism and forward motion that contrasts to the comparatively (and no-less-appropriately) somber Belcea Quartet recording, and even manage to make the central closely voiced sustained chords and soft glissandos sound both disembodied yet mobile. In the Scherzo, some might argue that the staccato arpeggio accompaniment is too soft and the declamatory unison melody lines are too hard-hitting, but the contrasts are borne out in the score.

Much as I admire the Belcea Quartet’s marvelous sense of atmosphere and color application throughout the Chacony finale, the Emersons bring just a bit more definition and shape to the gorgeous fluttering trills that float over a gentle cello pizzicato backing (about 10:25 into the movement).

My colleague David Hurwitz accurately cites the Third Quartet’s creepy qualities, some arising from the composer’s quotes from his comparably creepy opera Death in Venice, but the contrapuntal repartée in the terse Burlesque movement’s outer sections finds Shostakovich’s spirit hovering over the proceedings. In the latter, the Emersons’ clipped, acerbic tone quality contrasts to the less sharp, more blended Sorrel Quartet reading.

The Recitative and Passacaglia finale’s assiduous transitions and beautifully characterized solos (cellist Paul Watkins especially stands out) convey a more spacious impression than you might glean from the faster than usual 8:49 total timing. What is more, the final pages demonstrate that a beautiful tone and no vibrato are not mutually exclusive. That said, I find the Sorrels’ measured fragility more hauntingly sustained throughout this section, but in no way does that reflect upon the Emersons’ unquestionably intelligent and intuitive grasp of this work.

In addition to Decca Gold’s excellent sonics, I want to give a special shout-out to Anthony Burton’s informative, succinct, vividly descriptive, and straightforwardly written booklet notes, which tell you nearly everything you need to know about the music.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Album Title: Chaconnes And Fantasias--Music Of Britten And Purcell
Reference Recording: Britten: Belcea Quartet (EMI); Sorrel Quartet (Chandos)

    Emerson String Quartet

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