The Belcea Quartet make no attempt to survey all of Benjamin Britten's music for string quartet on this pair of discs, confining themselves to the works performed and published during the composer's lifetime. So their accounts of the three numbered quartets are accompanied just by the set of three Divertimenti that Britten himself assembled in 1936 from music he had composed three years earlier for a projected five-movement suite. That, we now know, was just a sample of his early music for strings, most of it published only after the composer's death, and which included two fully fledged quartets as well as a Quartettino and a succession of single movements.
What is presented so superbly here is the heart of Britten's mature achievement in chamber music. In retrospect it seems a relatively small number of works for such a prolific composer. The gap of 30 years, from 1945 to 1975 separating the Second and Third Quartets is hard to explain as well, particularly given the way in which Britten had used the three movements of the Second Quartet, with its drastic telescoping of sonata form in the first movement, as the opportunity for some of his most radical experiments.
What in 1945 would change the course of his development was the premiere of Peter Grimes; opera moved to the top of Britten's list of priorities and quartet writing apparently disappeared. And when he did return to the medium at the very end of his life for his last major work, it was filtered through the experience of composing his final opera; the Third Quartet quotes material from Death in Venice.
The Belcea's performances have to inhabit three different worlds. There's the almost brash, extrovert sensibility of the Three Divertimenti which is carried over to the 1941 First Quartet; after that comes the highly wrought intensity of the Second, and then the elegiac expressivity of the five movements of the Third. What is so impressive about this playing is that every bar in each quartet seems totally convincing, celebrating the athleticism and compositional brilliance of the early music just as much as it plumbs the depths of feeling in the very late work too. The Amadeus Quartet's version of the Third Quartet will keep its special place in the Britten discography, but for all three numbered quartets as well as the Divertimenti, the Belcea's is now the one to get.