Several of Benjamin Britten's greatest works received their world or UK premieres at the Wigmore Hall - the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943), the Second String Quartet and The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945) among them. So it was fitting that these provided the focus of a three-day Britten: In Memoriam festival at the hall and for Radio 3 on the 30th anniversary of his death.
The Second and Third Quartets formed the substance of the opening concert by the vastly accomplished Belcea Quartet. But these they prefaced with Britten's early Three Divertimenti, the completed movements of an abandoned quartet, premiered at the Wigmore in 1936, but unpublished in Britten's lifetime. Maybe he became embarrassed by the youthful bag of tricks in the opening march, though the waltz movement has real charm and the finale develops an implacable momentum.
Yet for all the Belcea's technical brilliance, they too frequently tended in these pieces, and in the first two movements of the String Quartet No 2 in C, Op 36, to exaggerate local contrasts and expressive nuances at the cost of the cool, classical poise Britten constantly sought. In particular, the opening movement of the Second needs all the continuity it can get. When the Belcea finally found such poise in the long passacaglia finale, their playing attained a breathtaking beauty of phrasing and tone.
Thereafter, Britten only returned to the quartet medium at the end of his life, imbuing his String Quartet No 3 Op 94 (1975) with echoes of his last opera, Death in Venice - prefaced, on this occasion, by Philip Langridge reading, with touching directness, the death of Aschenbach from Thomas Mann's novella. Here, the Belcea found just the right ambiguity in the opening movement, while Corina Belcea-Fisher's negotiation of the stratospheric slow movement solo was sweet and calm.
Not least, the Belcea hit exactly the right slowly swinging tempo for the long passacaglia finale. One could almost sense the Britten faithful responding to Britten's last questioning cadence with an answering sigh of satisfaction.Reuse content