Composers by tradition channel their most serious, abstract thinking into symphonies and string quartets. And though Benjamin Britten was neither a symphonist nor someone who worked in the abstract – writing mostly vocal music with a narrative – he did produce three significant quartets, as well as youthful stabs at the medium that were consigned to bottom-drawers.
Collectively they formed the basis for this year’s Britten Weekend at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, with the Doric Quartet playing most of the programmes. And if that sounds an arcane experience, it was in truth exhilarating – with an almost spiritual intensity, and the more so for the fact that it was happening in such a special place as Snape, surrounded by flat marshland and huge Suffolk skies that turn by night into a moonlit drama so romantic it’s like something out of Turner.
Britten’s quartets aren’t themselves romantic: they can be austere and wiry, and the bottom-drawer attempts come with a stark banality that probably explains why the composer put them to one side. I don’t think he’d have been delighted by the way his juvenilia gets exposed these days to general audiences.
But with the official 1st Quartet – composed in 1941 during the few years that Britten spent exploring life in America – the austerity turns magical. Early experience of writing budget film scores for the GPO made him resourceful, able to produce extraordinary effects from nothing. And that thrifty brilliance carried through to Quartet No 3, which came in 1975-6 when he was crippled by heart disease; it is a self-consciously “late” work, written in the face of death.
You only have to see the shaky hand of the manuscript sketches for No 3 – on display in a Britten Weekend exhibition at the composer’s Aldeburgh home – to understand how fragile he was at the time. And it isn’t hard to hear the persistent but faltering beat of the theme in the last movement as Britten’s own heart: beating, just about.
At Snape they did the 3rd in a peculiar way, intercut with a staging of a Henry James short story that seemed to me to shed no
light on the music it accompanied. But then we got the 3rd again, played straight, and it was spellbinding.
I’ve never been the Doric Quartet’s biggest fan, tending to find them over-groomed, over-emphatic, and too much the chic, sharp-cut ensemble (no doubt fashionably based in Shoreditch) for my taste. But here they were superb, their playing fierce but deeply felt. Concerts at Snape do have this revelatory way of changing your experience of music and musicians, almost always for the better. It must be the Suffolk air.
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