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String Quartet No 2 in C major, Op 36
October 1945; composed to mark the 250th anniversary of the death of Purcell and first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 21 November 1945 by the Zorian Quartet

'Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3' (CDA68004)
Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3
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Movement 1: Allegro calmo senza rigore
Movement 2: Vivace
Movement 3: Chacony: Sostenuto

String Quartet No 2 in C major, Op 36
Britten’s String Quartet No 2 was written 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.

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.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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Details for CDA68004 track 5
Allegro calmo senza rigore
Recording date
15 February 2013
Recording venue
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Tim Oldham
Recording engineer
David Hinitt
Hyperion usage
  1. Britten: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3 (CDA68004)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: November 2013
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