Movement 1: Allegro calmo senza rigore
Movement 2: Vivace
Movement 3: Chacony: Sostenuto
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