If St Nicolas was the ‘raw’, the Snape Maltings chamber concerts were most definitely the ‘cooked’. In his string quartets we hear Britten’s writing reaching a winnowed purity. From the boisterously playful Divertimenti, we journeyed through the dew-fresh first quartet, the labyrinthine complexity of the second to the snowflake-like perfection of the valedictory third. The Belcea Quartet was sadly unable to perform the series, but its absence made way for three young quartets, the Benyounes, the Kuss and Ensemble 360. I heard the latter two, which made for a fascinating contrast.
The Kuss took the third, Britten’s swan-song, and prefaced it with Schubert’s own final 15th quartet, D887. This big-scale utterance is notoriously tricky to capture: it needs to be powerful yet numinous; bewilderingly unstable yet grounded. The highlight was a spacious Andante, where Mikyael Hakhnazaryan’s miraculously beautiful cello was given room to sing. The opening was deliberate rather than dynamic, followed by a theme that, while delicate, failed to float. The swinging finale didn’t quite find its cross-rhythmic groove, in part because of an unusual imbalance in this group: leader Jana Kuss’s rather thin, dry sound was often overwhelmed by the striking tonal depth of viola (William Coleman) and cello.
This was less of an issue in Britten’s third quartet, which unlocks the very core of each instrument in its exploratory opening Duets. Zinging major seconds and open strings glowed and crackled in the warm, resonant acoustic of Snape Maltings. Kuss unwound the long slow movement solo with airborne grace, while they found the fun - and the fire – in the Burlesque. An exquisite Recitative & Passacaglia, Hakhnazaryan treading a velvet, barely-there bass line, Coleman and Kuss caressing each phrase before letting them go, made for a moving finale.
Sunday morning brought Ensemble 360 and a bracing dash through the Divertimenti (‘Go play, boy, play’). These early experimental pieces should dazzle and shock, and one immediately felt in the presence of players who embraced them with affectionate abandon – and had the skill to bring it off. Leader Benjamin Nabarro’s glossy, edgy sound sliced through the uproarious Burlesque and provided the heft for a sustained, penetrating melody in the Andante calmo of the first string quartet after a drily witty Allegretto. I was once again struck by the radical opening of this work, with its stratospherically high chords keening over pizzicato cello: forget Vaughan Williams, here in the harmonic white-light are the real larks, trilling in the sunshine above Iken fen.
Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet made for an odd bedfellow: its familiar tragedy and coruscating humour are so clearly laid before us, it somehow required a less intense level of attention, and reminded one of just how ambiguous and elusive Britten’s chamber works remain to 21st century ears. Tim Horton joined Ensemble 360 at the piano (which could have been more finely etched in this acoustic) for a big-boned, sweeping performance. Sheffield is lucky indeed to have these musicians in residence.