It is a curious fact that the closer Britten’s instrumental writing approximates to the world of his vocal music the happier it invariably sounds. Conversely, the more he attempts to emulate Beethovenian thematicism, the less comfortable and emotionally engaging are the results.
This is brought home more than ever by this captivating programme from the Elias Quartet, formed in 1998 at the Royal Northern College of Music and recently selected to join BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme. In the C major Second Quartet they soar aloft on the tide of Britten’s inspiration with a ravishing lyricism that consistently recalls his contemporaneous opera Peter Grimes. Magic moments abound, but the way the quartet’s leader Sara Bitlloch brings a Bruch-like fervour and intensity to one of the composer’s most emotionally unguarded moments in any genre (3:30 minutes into the opening movement) is sublime.
This remarkable ensemble’s ability to live and breathe each phrase with an enraptured sensitivity, proves even more revelatory in the Third Quartet, which here sounds less a valedictory creative summation (it is musically linked to Britten’s final opera Death in Venice) than a poignant suggestion of new creative avenues left tantalisingly unexplored. The engineering is as lucid as the playing itself, and the Three Divertimenti provide the musical icing on the cake.