Britten 25th Anniversary Concert, Wigmore Hall, London

Great Britten
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WERE THERE moments of roughness, loose vibrato and untidy ensemble in the rendering of the String Quartet No 1 in D major (1941) which opened this concert on the 25th anniversary of Benjamin Britten's death, when one wondered if the young Belcea Quartet were quite so wonderful? True, the edgier textures of this exuberant score sometimes sound as if they were written against the more comfortable norms of quartet texture. Then again, the players must have been all too aware they had a long evening ahead.

For respite, we had Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès in Britten's concise, personal song-set, the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente (1958). Bostridge, in slightly gusty voice, characterised details of Hölderlin's imagery with sensitivity, but could not always sustain the longer line. Adès supported him with immaculate intensity, handling the coda to the final setting "Die Linien des Lebens" more convincingly than Britten, who tended to rush it.

After the interval, the Belceas returned transformed, unfolding the serene paragraphs that launch the String Quartet No 2 in C major (1945) with a poised luminosity, and finding nuance in the Purcell-inspired Chacony finale. Then there was another interval, after which one would have happily listened to the violinist Sigmund Nissel's reminiscences to the young composer Julian Philips of the Amadeus Quartet's involvements with Britten at length, had time allowed it.

Yet while the Belceas found despatch enough for the bustling counterpoint of the second movement and the grotesque prancings of the fourth in the String Quartet No 3 (1975), there was no haste in the tranced sweetness with which the leader, Corina Belcea encompassed the work's stratospheric central solo. Nor was there in the Quartet's handling of the uncanny outer movements: the fragile duet texture of the first and the valedictory finale.

It is all too late to lament that 30-year gap between Britten's last two quartets; to imagine how cogent a quartet he might have written in the wake of The Turn of the Screw in the mid-1950s, or using the notational innovations of the Church Parables in the 1960s. Yet the Belcea Quartet succeeded in closing the gap musically, suggesting that Britten's three mature quartets can make a convincing single-concert sequence.

Radio 3 will be broadcast the concert on 18 Dec at 7.30pm