Benjamin Britten’s three string quartets are not the only works he wrote for this medium but they are certainly the most important, forming cornerstones of his compositional career. The First, composed in America in 1941, comes from the period when the young composer was still showing off his extraordinary technical prowess. The Second, which concludes with a 15-minute chaconne of Beethovenian depth, was written in the wake of Peter Grimes, while the Third, at the end of his life, quotes from his final opera Death in Venice.
Thanks to the recent Britten centenary, several new recordings of his quartets are now on the market, including one by the Endellion Quartet (Warner Classics), and a two-disc set from the Emperor Quartet on the BIS label. The latter boasts detailed and polished performances, but the Takács players trump them in verve and emotional commitment.
How well the Takács capture the intensity of the Second Quartet’s Vivace movement, or the power and grandeur of the Chacony’s closing bars. They miss a degree of introversion and nostalgia in the Third Quartet, where Britten – like his friend Shostakovich – uses the medium to make a highly personal statement, in this case one of farewell. Perhaps here the Emperor Quartet’s more understated approach comes closer to the truth. Overall, though, the Takács find warmth in a composer too often described as cool and squeeze it all onto one 76-minute CD.