Composers: Britten, Purcell
Compositions: String Quartets, Three Divertimenti, String Fantasias
Performers: Doric String Quartet
Catalogue Number: Chandos CHAN201242 (2CD)

Prompted by homesickness while in self-imposed exile in America in the early 1940s and on the cusp of greatness with Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten – a giant of 20th-century British music – became besotted by the music of Henry Purcell, a towering figure of 17th-century British music. It proved to be a telling meeting of musical minds across time and place, and the intriguing dialogue that resulted provides the focus for this finely played, incisively argued recital from the Doric String Quartet, which pairs the two.

Of passing interest is the use of Britten’s own viola by the Doric’s Hélène Clément, an 1843 Francesco Guissani used by the composer on his only recording with the instrument, aptly enough of Purcell’s five-part Fantasia upon One Note. The quintet of Four-Part Fantasias heard here date from the same year, 1680, and in their deference to a form even then considered outmoded hark back to the era of Orlando Gibbons and John Jenkins. The Quartet takes to their relaxed contrapuntalism with a delicate, reciprocal elegance that makes much of the music’s poised, antique daintiness even as their sensitivity to tone and temperament goes to the very heart of their plaintively contrived prettiness.

The Fantasias provide the fulcrum for this double-disc set, a sort of amuse-bouche for Britten’s Second Quartet to follow. Composed to mark the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death in 1945, it owes much to the older composer throughout, explicitly so in its substantial Chacony finale. An intricate exploration of ground-bass forms, it’s treated to beautifully detailed playing by the Dorics, individual voices threading through ever-shifting variations with balletic dexterity.

The earlier First Quartet benefits from similar precision, the chiaroscuro contrasts of its first movement delivered with a painterly concern for light and shade, the second a dazzling fireworks display, the third lent a darkly burnished gloss, the finale a tour de force of nimble technique and nuanced emotion.

Britten’s stringent, late Third Quartet arcs back to Purcell in
its haunting passacaglia while making much of borrowings from his own opera Death in Venice, both accents realised here with pungent, rhythmically alert playing, tautly woven textures and a vivid sense of mood and atmosphere.

The not too serious March, playful Waltz and boisterous Burlesque of Britten’s Three Divertimenti are markedly more animated, agreeably so in such buoyant, crisply spry and alertly reciprocal performances as here, qualities happily in evidence throughout.