Listening to Britten – Phantasy Quartet, Op.2


(c) Brian Hogwood

Phantasy Quartet, Op.2 for oboe and string trio (9 September – 25 October 1932, Britten aged 18)

Dedication Leon Goossens
Duration 15′

Audio – a clip of the version by Sarah Francis and members of the Delmé Quartet (P) 1995 Hyperion

Background and Critical Reception

This is another try-out for the ‘phantasy’ form that Britten was getting ever closer to perfecting, and in fact this was his last exercise in the form, Christopher Mark notes. He uses this work to sum up Britten’s juvenilia and early works. ‘The problem was one of identity: while his technique was already approaching that of a virtuoso, it would be a number of years before certain questions of style would be fully resolved’.

It was the first work of Britten’s to be performed overseas, and was given in Florence as the result of an International Society for Contemporary Music competition. It received an early broadcast on the BBC, and was the first of many works written specifically for leading national and international soloists.

Arnold Whittall describes the form as ‘an elaborate arch’, revealing it to be ‘the first of Britten’s mature works to end with music which is recessional in character’ – a technique he used in works such as A Ceremony of Carols and many of the dramatic church pieces. For Whittall it also ‘demonstrates Britten’s vital ability to control and direct lyrical flow’.

Paul Kildea is more critical, judging the Phantasy as ‘not a strong piece’. He criticises its lack of melodic content and distinctive writing for oboe. John Bridcut goes the other way, the ‘dominating figure of the opening march’ being ‘an idea that Britten simply couldn’t get out of his head. He used it further in Alla Marcia (for string quartet), and again in Les illuminations several years later.

However it is Michael Oliver that truly nails the piece, with an English lyricism ‘earned by the resourceful thematic economy to which it is subject’.

Thoughts

The Phantasy Quartet is a lovely work, a hazy summer morning piece of music that in the right performance comes fresh off the page.

It is also cleverly constructed, and repeated listens reveal how Britten blends the highly attractive sonorities of oboe and string trio in to a formal design that proves incredibly rigorous. He therefore manages to achieve a blend of English pastoral charm with a more European design – appropriate, then, that this piece was the first of Britten’s works to be performed abroad.

For such a young composer Britten shows a commendable knowledge of the oboe, which he no doubt enhanced further with Leon Goossens’ input, but it is a telling feature of his writing now that no instrumental contribution is unimportant. The small cell of notes through which the work grows and recedes is heard on the cello at the beginning and end, while the strings have some extremely attractive solos in the slower music.

A natural companion to Bridge or even Vaughan Williams, this is a popular chamber work – and it is easy to see why.

Recordings used
Gareth Hulse (oboe), Members of the Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Sarah Francis (oboe), Members of the Delmé String Quartet (Hyperion)

Gareth Hulse and the Endellions are a little more fluid than Sarah Francis and the members of the Delmé String Quartet, but both performances are very strong in their portrayal of Britten’s increasing mastery of form.

Spotify

A couple of other versions are available on Spotify – Gordon Hunt and members of the Tale Quartet being particularly well recorded in an opulent version for BIS, while the account of Francois Leleux and friends for Sony is divided into five sections from track 8, and sounds rather more like four soloists than an established quartet.

Also written in 1932: Bliss – A Colour Symphony

Next up: arrangement of Bridge: There Is A Willow Grows Aslant A Brook

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2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Phantasy Quartet, Op.2

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op.49 | Good Morning Britten

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