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Hyperion Records

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Red Hot Suffolk Winter by Mita Higton
Track(s) taken from 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: 24 minutes 50 seconds

'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 Quartet No 3, Op 94
October to November 1975; written for the Amadeus Quartet who gave the first performance at Snape Maltings on 19 December 1976

Solo: Very calm  [4'33]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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’.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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