GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2019
Award sponsored by
Britten . Purcell Britten String Quartets – No 1, Op 25; No 2, Op 36; No 3, Op 94. Three Divertimenti Purcell Fantasias in Four Parts – Z737; Z738; Z739; Z740; Z741 Doric Quartet Chandos F (two discs for the price of one) CHAN20124 (112’ • DDD)
The Doric Quartet’s beautiful Britten cycle was recorded in tandem with a series of concerts, greatly admired, in Snape Maltings last October. They describe it themselves as a ‘milestone’ since their formation in 1998, and in some ways it can be seen as the culmination of a long association both with Britten’s music and with Suffolk itself. They were formed at Pro Corda, the school for chamber musicians at Leiston, not far from Aldeburgh, and the Suffolk landscape, they tell us, has long been in their minds and imaginations when studying Britten’s scores. Hélène Clément, meanwhile, the Doric’s viola player, plays the composer’s own instrument, previously owned by Frank Bridge, who made a present of it to Britten when he left for the US in 1939.
The set also, however, reflects upon the indelible imprint left by Purcell’s music on Britten’s work, which is sometimes taken as read, though the juxtaposition here is effective and telling. The Second Quartet was famously written to mark the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, while the great closing Passacaglia of the Third was Britten’s last deployment of a form he took from his predecessor and made his own. Moreover, hearing the Purcell Fantasias, particularly Nos 8 and 9 (Z739 and 740) in D minor and A minor respectively, in proximity to the First Quartet is to be reminded of their closeness in mood to the patterns of introspection and energy that give the First both its structural integrity and its nostalgic tone, particularly in its long, finely wrought slow movement.
The performances are all superbly judged and controlled, balancing fragility with strength, restraint with great depth of feeling. The opening of the First,
with its high, ethereal phrases offset by worldly, guitar-like cello twangs, is rich with ambiguities, while the Andante calmo, its long violin solo played with exquisite poise by Alex Redington, grieves quietly for the war-torn England Britten left behind during his American sojourn. In the Second, the Doric offset formal logic with deep emotional resonance, sweeping us through the ceremonies and wonders of the final Chacony with great refinement and dignity before we reach the final moments of assertion and grandeur. The Third, haunted by thoughts of imminent mortality, bids farewell to life and love with quiet dignity and gazes towards infinity as time ticks away towards the close: it’s wonderfully done, and you can’t help but be moved by it.
The early Divertimenti, played with considerable wit and elegance, provide some much-needed contrast to the intensity of it all, while the counterpoint of Purcell’s Fantasias is finely realised in performances of considerable weight and finesse. Comparisons here are perhaps invidious. I have great fondness for the Amadeus Quartet’s slightly more spacious way with the Second in their 1977 performance (Testament DVD, 2/06), and if you like a more overtly dramatic approach to this repertory, then you may prefer the Belcea Quartet’s fractionally more extrovert interpretations (EMI, 7/05). But this is a major cycle, engaging and profound in equal measure, and you need to hear it. Tim Ashley (5/19)
Debussy ‘Les trois sonates – The Late Works’ Violin Sonataa. Cello Sonatab. Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harpc. Berceuse héroïqued. Élégied. Page d’albumd. Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbond c Magali Mosnier fl aIsabelle Faust vn cAntoine Tamestit va cXavier de Maistre hp bJean-Guihen Queyras vc aAlexander Melnikov, bJavier Perianes, d Tanguy de Williencourt pf Harmonia Mundi F HMM90 2303 (54’ • DDD)
Described as ‘testamentary’ on its back cover, the latest release in Harmonia
Mundi’s Debussy anniversary series is perhaps more an act of commemorative reflection than an overt celebration of his genius. It gathers together, by no means for the first time on disc, the three sonatas, written between 1915 and 1917 as the First World War destroyed Debussy’s world and cancer slowly ravaged his body. They’re framed and separated here, however, by his four last, rarely heard piano pieces, all of them ostensibly pièces d’occasion, though they’re linked by a deep, sometimes despairing sadness that reveals much about the anguish of his final years.
Three of them formed his contribution to the war effort. The sombre Berceuse héroïque was commissioned, along with pieces by Saint-Saëns, Mascagni and Elgar, by the Daily Telegraph for inclusion in a volume entitled King Albert’s Book, published in support of the beleaguered monarchy of occupied Belgium. The manuscript of Élégie pour piano was intended to be sold to raise money for war relief, while Page d’album was written for performance at a charity concert for ‘Vêtement du blessé’ (‘Clothes for the wounded’), for which his wife worked as a volunteer. The saddest of the four is Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon, Debussy’s last work for piano, written during the bitter winter of 1916‑17 as a gift to his coal supplier, one M Tronquin, in the hope that the latter would furnish him with enough fuel to keep warm.
Juxtaposed with the sonatas, they throw into relief the ambiguities of the latter, with their mixture of retrospection, fantasy and innovation. The Sonata for flute, viola and harp sounds more than ever like a final, nostalgic evocation of the worlds of Faune and Bilitis here: the performance is relaxed, fractionally too much so in the first movement, perhaps, but it tingles with sensuousness and the shifts in colour are all beautifully realised. Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov’s account of the Violin Sonata, Debussy’s last completed score, embraces exquisite fragility and strength in equal measure, the finale gathering itself for one last moment of assertion at the end. JeanGuihen Queyras and Javier Perianes’s performance of the Cello Sonata, noble in manner and grand in scale, balances the
4 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2019