'Yes, we often get linked to the Kronos,' concedes Peter Manning, the British foursome's leader. 'But while we play some of their rep, they don't play any of ours.' For while the Kronos remain exclusively 20th-century in outlook, the Brittens pride themselves on maintaining a continuity with the past. Not that they don't work with living composers - Piers Hallawell has recently written a piece for them, as has Steve Martland (and Manning himself has even recorded with the Martland Band) - but they see no point in divorcing the music of today from that of the past. Neither do they value subverting a centuries- old tradition to the whims of passing fashion, whether for rock-influenced cross-over or period-inflected authenticity. 'We're not going to be told to stop playing Haydn because it's boring,' Manning insists, 'nor are we going to be told to stop playing Haydn except on period instruments. We've had an unbroken span of over 200 years of string quartet playing. Why, over the last five years, has everyone suddenly decided it's time to change it all completely?'
So, yes, the Brittens have abandoned their penguin suits, but, no, they're not out to compromise either their music or their public. 'I think you have to face the world head on,' Manning announces bullishly, 'and we're the only quartet that does that. We won't be forced into distractions in order to get things heard.'
So you won't find the Brittens playing cross-over and Kraftwerk like the Balanescus or jamming with world musicians like the Kronos or flirting with rock composers and TV commercials like the Brodskys or playing for dance companies like the Smiths. The core repertoire of classical masterworks is what the Brittens do best - and they see no reason to abandon that in search of a supposedly elusive public. 'We aren't going to throw the music away like ballast, as some quartets have done. If we have to make our balloon bigger, we will.' The Brittens, Manning hopes, will be defined not by what they won't do, but by what they will. 'We're not a lowest-common-denominator quartet,' he insists. 'We don't exclude anything.'
If chamber music does have a problem of public perception in this country, it's the funding bodies and media that Manning holds to blame. Despite all the renewed interest in classical music - the Pavarotti phenomenon, the CD explosion, the impact of Nigel Kennedy, the arrival of Classic FM - the focus has remained firmly fixed on opera, orchestras and big solo turns. If Manning has a personal crusade, it is 'to restore chamber music to its rightful place - not lower down the league of concert-going than symphony orchestras and opera, but on an equal level with them.'
He is especially annoyed by the way public funding seems to follow the figures: the more of you there are, the more money you get. So opera and orchestras cream off the best of the subsidies, while chamber music is left to the mercies of the amateur sector. 'Is chamber music really irrelevant in the musical world?' he demands. 'I was recently told by a rather senior person in the arts that it was up to the National Federation of Music Societies to fund chamber music in this country. If that's true, it means that chamber music will become a minority interest, only listened to by audiences of 100, in obscure halls, and played by musicians who are barely paid.'
Yet, on recent tours to South America and Greece, the Britten Quartet played to sell-out houses of over 3,000 a night. 'People in England say chamber music is only for small audiences. It's not - not if you can get the acoustic right.'
The idea that chamber music only deserves small halls and even smaller audiences is, says Manning, just one of many misconceptions about the medium. Add the idea that quartet music is somehow intrinsically esoteric and elitist; that you virtually need a PhD in Schenkerian analysis before you can appreciate it; that audiences that can happily take Beethoven's symphonies and concertos are somehow not quite up to the same composer's quartets . . . 'We need the musical equivalent of Sir John Harvey-Jones to help get rid of all the confusion that surrounds chamber music in this country,' he suggests. 'People just have to be encouraged to listen to this music in any way they can.'
Thanks partly to the medium's low media profile, there is a perception that the string quartet is somehow the symphony orchestra's poor relation. Yet, as Manning points out, there is no qualitative difference between chamber and symphonic music: a composer's quartet writing is just as integral to his output as his operas and symphonies. For Manning, the quartet is more an orchestra-in-embryo, but with an energy level and immediacy of attack that often exceeds that of its bigger, bulkier brother. 'The lineage of the string quartet goes right back to the beginnings of the sound spectrum,' he observes. 'From white to black, emotionally and intellectually, it's got everything. But it also has something I don't think the symphony orchestra has - a human lightness. The symphony orchestra is something of a gothic manifestation. That's why period instruments have done so well: people have been given back the spirit of lightness - and they like it]'
Despite the fiery talk, the Britten Quartet have adopted a rather low- key approach to their crusade, at least as far as their recordings go. It's been more a matter of making gentle inroads into the unfamiliar than armed assaults on the unknown - pairing Dvorak's popular American Quartet with his less familiar D minor of 16 years before, or offsetting the Ravel quartet against pieces by his sometime pupil, Vaughan Williams (the G minor quartet and the A E Housman cycle, On Wenlock Edge, for tenor and piano quintet), rather than the standard coupling with Debussy. The one real novelty so far has been the taste- defying Penny Dreadful-style horror- movie cover EMI stuck on their otherwise excellent disc of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet (coupled with the early E flat of 1813). 'Well, at least it's eye-catching,' said EMI in defence.
But now the Britten Quartet are making a move that, they hope, will finally begin to alter public perceptions. They have decided to uproot themselves from London and take up residence in Bristol, at St George's, Brandon Hill. 'We're one of the most travelled quartets on this planet,' says Manning (and indeed, in their brief eight years, the quartet have already toured from Lapland to Latvia, via Latin America, the USSR, Scandinavia and the Far East). 'We've been looking for a place where we can relax into what we do best, develop a repertoire, and build a nucleus audience.' Bristol, he hopes, will answer those needs. 'There's space there - we can see the sky. It's a city, one of England's great cities. There's a latency there.' In return, the quartet aims to provide a focus not just for music in the city but for chamber music in the country as a whole. 'We have to lay down a serious marker for chamber music in Bristol,' he declares. 'It's time to open a wider debate with the people who really do make the decisions about the arts in this country, and I want chamber music to be part of that debate.'
In Bristol, they're starting as they mean to go on, at the summit, with their first complete cycle of the Beethoven quartets. As a hint of things to come, the six concerts are supplemented by a series of four pre-concert talks and two public masterclasses with selected young quartets from local schools and national music colleges. 'We're always hearing that the symphony orchestra has to change to suit the times,' says Manning. 'I see very little evidence of that. It's like turning the Titanic around in mid-Atlantic. Chamber musicians are the true innovators, they're the ones who've really got their fingers on the pulse. Just because we're not style victims like the Kronos, it doesn't mean we're not stylish.'
The Britten Quartet's Beethoven cycle opens on Friday, 7.30pm St George's, Brandon Hill, Bristol (0272 230359). Continues 26 Feb, 26 Mar, 23 Apr, 21 May, 25 Jun. Single concerts pounds 8. Book a pounds 42 series ticket and get a free copy of the Britten Quartet's Dvorak CD
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