BRITTEN: Simple Symphony, Op. 4; Quartettino; Rhapsody for String Quartet; Phantasy in F minor for string quintet; String Quartet in F Major (1928) [Britten Quartets Vol. 3] – Emperor Quartet – BIS multichannel SACD BIS-1870, 74:00 (9/9/14) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
For this lovely SACD, the Emperor Quartet have gathered five works from the composer’s earliest period, from the String Quartet in F, by a fourteen-year old schoolboy, to the Simple Symphony, composed six years later and the work which may be regarded as his breakthrough. These are oft-peformed and recorded works, but it is a pleasure to hear these performances wrapped in an excellent recording.
The program begins with the Simple Symphony (1934-35). Bits of the score evolved from works Britten wrote as a teenager. Britten conducted the premiere with an amateur orchestra. The performance from the Emperor Quartet is precise and passionate.
Britten’s Rhapsody from 1929 is also well played. It is conventional, and at that time in his life Britten was dedicated to the idea of becoming one of the famous ‘B’s’ (Beethoven, Brahms, Bach) but in later years, especially after exposure to composers like Frank Bridge, one of Britten’s teachers, Britten explored more varied styles of composition. All the works on this disc are from Britten’s earlier period, and all the compositions are worthy of repeated listening sessions.
The work least familiar to me is the Quartettino, written in 1930. It’s a remarkable piece for a 16- year-old. It’s a composition filled with adventures, as Britten seemed to delight in pushing the compositional envelope. The disc closes with the Phantasy in F Minor and the String Quartet in F Minor. They date from 1932 and 1928 respectively.
The performances here are first rate. Comparing the SACD to the CD layer I find an extra sparkle of sheen in the strings. The surrounds are used predominately for ambience, as the soloists are firmly up front and well rendered in terms of their position and depth.
The Emperor Quartet has given us an excellent disc. It’s the third in a series of SACDs of Britten’s works by BIS. I can’t think of a single reason to not have this disc in your collection.