Benjamin Britten composed his Phantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello in 1932; he was nineteen. Already conversant with 17th Century classical forms, Britten found a convenient means of expression in the fantasy or fancy-piece, with its relatively brief, single-movement, improvisatory structure. The music of Purcell provided further impetus, and Britten submitted his piece for the Cobbett Chamber Music Prize. In seven linked sections, the music provides oboist Alex Klein any number of effects and virtuosic runs and leaps to demonstrate his considerable prowess. Splendid Cedille sonics capture the interplay of oboe and boiling pizzicati passages in the strings. Mark Johnson’s cello gets a thorough workout, and his is a big tone with fluent technique.
The music of Sir Arthur Bliss first came to my attention through his score for the film The Shape of Things to Come (1936) with Raymond Massey. The Quintet for Oboe was composed earlier, in 1927. While the writing for oboe is idiomatic and engaging, it is the cello part in the first movement Assai sostenuto that haunts the ear, although some flutter effects in the strings and sudden martial tappings prove equally notable. A pastoral element permeates the music – not bucolic, but modally captivating. Klein’s long-held note at the coda attests to strong lungs. The second movement Andante con moto reveals debts to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Delicate pizzicati accompany an oboe arioso of special flavor. Nice viola work by Richard Young. The impassioned central section of the Andante at several points reminded me of music by Bernard Hermann. Violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi adds his own fervor to the proceedings. Stringent harmonies and a wiry texture mark the Vivace, a busy, Irish national movement based on “Connelly’s Jig,” punctuated by throbs and gripping, angular figurations.
Britten’s Third Quartet (1975) was composed while he recuperated from heart surgery; one of his last works, he intended the music for the Amadeus String Quartet. The music shares motifs with Britten’s opera Death in Venice, especially in the opening of the last movement, Recitative and Passacaglia. In five movements, the quartet offers homage to both Bartok and Shostakovich, the latter in the fugal, fourth movement Burlesque, with its symphonic sonority. A series of Duets opens the quartet, the music presented in pairs of instruments; it is followed by Ostinato, a debt paid to Beethoven’s Op. 135. Ashkenasi returns for the C Major solo part, a woeful meditation that approaches the feeling of plainchant. Eerie, haunted, and curiously serene, the music makes passes at Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. Ghosts appear at the opening of the Recitative and Passacaglia; perhaps one of these belongs to Britten himself. This is Britten’s Pathetique Symphony, etched in dark fire by the Vermeer (April 25-26, 2006) with power and devout reverence.
— Gary Lemco