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Hyperion Records

CDA68004 - Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3
Red Hot Suffolk Winter by Mita Higton
www.artsumitra.co.uk
CDA68004
Recording details: February 2013
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: November 2013
Total duration: 75 minutes 53 seconds

GRAMOPHONE CHOICE
SUNDAY TIMES CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE WEEK

'This beautifully recorded set couples raw intensity with subtle refinement … for a recording of all three Britten String Quartets, this release is highly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A superb recording … the Takács make the changes of mood in the first quartet equally convincing: the rapt intertwining of the opening bars unfold with wonderful clarity, to contrast with the robust rhythmic drive that follows, so that the music is constantly realigning itself, never settling into a single mood. If they do not solve all the puzzles of these three works, which contain such contradictory elements that it is never easy to say what they are 'about', the quartet offer the best possible guide to the music's beauty and complexity, giving listeners all they need to come to their own conclusions' (The Guardian)

'An invigorating recording from one of the world's most distinguished ensembles … it will be hard-pushed to match the playing of the Takács Quartet on this splendid album' (International Record Review)

'The players attack each quartet with their customary passion, panache and individuality, bringing aching phrasings and tantalising flickers of gypsy fire' (The Times)

String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3
Andante calmo  [8'50]
Molto vivace  [3'56]
Vivace  [3'43]
Chacony: Sostenuto  [15'06]
Solo: Very calm  [4'33]

‘Arguably the greatest string quartet before the public today’ (The Sunday Times), the Takács Quartet have recorded much of the great Classical and Romantic quartet repertoire during their fruitful career. Now they turn to three masterpieces of the twentieth century.

The three quartets span the composer’s life, the first written in America and the second written at the height of Britten’s fame after the premiere of Peter Grimes. It was written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death—a composer who was a lifetime inspiration to Britten—and the last movement is cast in the form of a huge Chacony. The third Quartet was written at the end of Britten’s life and refers specifically to his last opera, Death in Venice. Peter Pears described this haunting work as being ‘of a profound beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious—overwhelming’.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Although Britten wrote at least six string quartets during his teens, some under the private tutelage of Frank Bridge, his first substantial work for quartet to receive a public performance was a set of Three Divertimenti extracted from a larger suite with the working title Go play, boy, play (a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale), which he had begun in 1933. The performance, which was given three years later in Wigmore Hall by the Stratton Quartet, was (according to Britten’s diary) a ‘dismal failure. Received with sniggers and pretty cold silence … very depressing’. The next day Jack Westrup gave the work a scathing review in The Daily Telegraph, declaring that the pieces were ‘depressing rather than diverting’ and that ‘Mr Britten will have proved his worth as a composer when he succeeds in writing music that relies less on superficial effect’. Undaunted, Britten included material from the ill-fated work in his song-cycle Les illuminations, completed after his temporary emigration to the United States in 1939.

In July 1941, while still in the States, Britten received a $400 commission from an American patroness, Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, which presented him with the opportunity to compose his ‘official’ String Quartet No 1. Mrs Coolidge was a passionate devotee of the genre, and had already commissioned Bartók’s Fifth Quartet (1934) and Schoenberg’s Fourth (1936). Britten’s contribution was composed in the humble surroundings of a tool shed located in the garden of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, the British husband-and-wife piano duo who were his hosts during a stay in California. The finished quartet was first performed in September 1941 in Los Angeles, and earned its composer the Library of Congress Coolidge Medal for Eminent Services to Chamber Music. It is evident from Britten’s correspondence that his attitude to the commission was somewhat ambivalent. To his friend Elizabeth Mayer he confessed that the project would be ‘a bit of a sweat to do it so quickly, but I’ll do it as the cash will be useful!’, and to his older brother Robert he reported:

I’m to be presented with a gold medal at the Library of Congress in Washington in October, by Mrs Sprague Coolidge (the rich patroness of music, friend of Frank Bridge) for services to chamber music! Gettin’ quite distinguished arn’t I? But it doesn’t mean any money, unless I sell the medal, which wouldn’t be quite quite. Still the old girl has just bought a String Quartet off me for quite a sum, which will keep the wolf away for a bit, so I can’t complain.

More seriously, however, Britten told his benefactress that he rated the quartet as ‘my best piece so far’, and the Times critic wrote after its first English performance by the Griller Quartet in April 1943: ‘It looks as though he has begun to advance from his easy accomplishment into some new phase of development in his thought which will be watched with interest.’ The reviewer went on to describe the musical idiom as ‘unconventional’ and ‘experimental’ with its ‘harshly contrasted elements’, referring to the juxtapositions of passages in slow and quick tempos in the first movement inspired by Beethoven’s B flat major Quartet, Op 130. The ethereal diatonic opening to the work suggests the strong influence of neoclassical Stravinsky, as distinctively modified by the music of Copland, by whom Britten was befriended at the time of composition.

Britten’s String Quartet No 2 followed in October 1945, towards the end of a year which had seen the composer catapulted to international stardom with the phenomenal success of his opera Peter Grimes, premiered on 7 June. Grimes marked Britten’s wholehearted return to the English language after the foreign texts which had dominated his vocal works in the preceding years, and this celebration of his vernacular literary heritage continued with the song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, written just two months after the first production of Peter Grimes. Appropriately, it was at this time that Britten began to devote serious attention to the music of Henry Purcell—undoubtedly the greatest setter of English texts before Britten himself. The Holy Sonnets reveal the influence of Purcell in the use of a ground bass in the final song, and in the carefully controlled declamatory style of the voice throughout the cycle. The Second Quartet, composed immediately after the Donne settings, was specifically written to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death and first performed on the precise date of the anniversary (21 November 1945) at Wigmore Hall by the Zorian Quartet. (Coincidentally, the Donne settings were premiered at the same venue by Britten and Peter Pears on the very next day, which was Britten’s thirty-second birthday.) In homage to Purcell, Britten cast the finale of the Second Quartet in the form of a massive Chacony which lasts considerably longer than the sum of the other two movements. Britten’s devotion to the earlier composer continued in the following year when he composed a set of variations on a theme by Purcell (better known under the title The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), and undertook editorial work with Pears on Purcell’s songs. Among his many later Purcell arrangements—which included Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen—was a version of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor. This arrangement was based on the autograph score held in the British Museum, and was intended for performance either by a string quartet or string orchestra, an option reflecting scholarly indecision about the exact nature of the performing forces envisaged by Purcell. Britten conducted the Chacony during a five-month worldwide concert tour in the winter of 1955–6; unashamedly dramatic in its vitality and dynamic contrasts, his arrangement is a vivid illustration of the excitement which the rediscovery of Purcell’s music generated in the 1950s.

The first movement of Britten’s Second Quartet is a fine illustration of the close interrelationship of melody and harmony which is such a characteristic feature of his style. The three themes presented consecutively at the outset all commence with the interval of a tenth which is to dominate the movement not only in the melodic dimension but also as a vertical, harmonic element. The movement is original in structure, avoiding a conventional sonata plan in favour of an ongoing process of development. There are occasional glimpses of the influence of Bartók (especially in the use of open-string pedal points and widely spaced harmonics), but the overall effect of the movement is highly unusual. The ensuing scherzo (Vivace) is entirely muted, agitated in mood and built on a stark contrast between shadowy spiccato arpeggios and vigorous unison melody. During the jauntier trio section, the principal theme of the scherzo is presented by the first violin in octaves and rhythmic augmentation. The Chacony finale opens with a unison statement of the ground theme, followed by three sets of six variations each: the first six explore the theme’s harmonic implications, the second are mainly concerned with contrasting rhythmic patterns, and the third with melodic developments. The three groups of variations are punctuated by cadenzas for solo instruments: cello between the first and second groups, viola between the second and third, and first violin after the third. The movement concludes with three further variations which build towards a final climax where the C major tonality of the work is reasserted in a succession of powerful tonic triads. In many ways, this magnificent set of variations forms the culmination of Britten’s early interest in the form as manifested in the youthful sets for piano and oboe, and the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra.

When Britten was recovering from his 1973 heart operation, he complained that he experienced extreme discomfort in stretching up to reach the upper staves of a full orchestral manuscript. Hans Keller, for whom Britten had many years earlier promised to compose another string quartet, quipped that perhaps now was the right time to be thinking about returning to chamber music. Britten took up the suggestion, embarking wholeheartedly on his String Quartet No 3 in October 1975 and completing the composition draft in Venice the same November. Work on the score proved to be exceptionally tiring, and Britten employed the young composer Colin Matthews as an amanuensis and personal assistant: Matthews would play through Britten’s sketches on the piano, with the composer himself adding the ground bass in the final passacaglia movement. The work was intended for the Amadeus Quartet, who gave Britten a private hearing of it in Aldeburgh on 28 September 1976, but by this point the composer’s health had deteriorated so seriously that he was unable to listen for more than twenty minutes at a stretch, and needed to take frequent rests. Britten did not live to hear a public performance of his last quartet: it was premiered by the Amadeus at Snape Maltings on 19 December, just over a fortnight after his death.

Because the work comprises five fairly short movements, some commentators have regarded the Third Quartet more as a suite rather than as a cogently constructed musical argument. Indeed, Britten’s working title for the piece was ‘Divertimento’, which clearly suggests an initially lightweight conception, and it is plausible to argue that the work constitutes a significant departure from the principles of sonata form which had, however heavily disguised, dominated all his earlier instrumental music. The brunt of the intellectual substance is borne by the two outer movements, which form a frame to the three intermezzo-like central movements (two scherzos flanking a slow movement). The overall plan of the quartet is thus a simple arch pattern, again recalling the seminal influence of Bartók. Keller declared:

The height of Britten’s own symphonic thought is reached, without question, in his Third String Quartet which, composed thirty years after his second, consummates what the earlier … work had foreshadowed, not only in terms of human drama made purely musical, but also in venturing, whole mindedly, that decisive step beyond—into the Mozartian realm of the instrumental purification of opera.

Britten’s Third Quartet is specifically related to his last opera, Death in Venice (composed in 1970–73), several quotations from which appear in the fifth movement: the subtitle ‘La Serenissima’ refers to Venice, the city in which the movement was composed. In the course of the Recitative, Britten includes the barcarolle used to depict the motions of gondolas in the opera in addition to material relating to the unrequited love of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach for the beautiful Polish boy Tadzio, and the haunting Passacaglia is set firmly in the key of E major—the tonality used in the opera to characterize Aschenbach himself. It seems likely, however, that the quartet’s programmatic finale was intended not as a further exploration of the operatic character and his predicament, but as a poignant envoi to Pears, who had created the role on the stage and who had been Britten’s partner and creative muse for the best part of four decades. Pears described the quartet in a letter written a few days after its posthumous premiere as being ‘of a profound beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious—overwhelming’.

Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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