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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
CD 1
String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 (1941)  [26:13]
String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op 36 (1945)  [31:47]
CD 2
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94 (1975)  [25:44]
Three Divertimenti for String Quartet (1936)  [10:31] 
Belcea Quartet
Recorded: String Quartet No. 3, July 2003 and remaining works 28 June to 3 July 2004 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, U.K. 
EMI CLASSICS 5 57968 2 [58:10 + 36:24]


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Comparative versions:

String Quartet No. 2, String Quartet in F major (1928) and String Quartet in D major (1931), from the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos CHAN 9664.

String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3, Three Divertimenti (1936) and Alla Marcia (1933), from the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos CHAN 9469.

String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 and Three Divertimenti (1936), from the Maggini String Quartet on Naxos 8.553883.

String Quartet No. 3, Alla Marcia (1933), Quartettino (1930) and Simple Symphony version for string quartet, from the Maggini String Quartet on Naxos 8.554360.


This EMI Classics release is an exciting event. Here we have yet another spectacular set of Britten’s three officially numbered string quartets and this time from the extremely talented British-based Belcea Quartet. Only six years ago I vividly recall discussing with a friend about the dearth of recordings of the three Britten String Quartets and then came along complete accounts from the Sorrel, Maggini, Brodsky and now the Belcea.

We are truly fortunate to have such a fine group of talented chamber ensembles in Britain at the moment; in particular the Florestan Trio, the Sorrel Quartet, the Gaudier Ensemble, the Nash Ensemble, the Maggini Quartet and the Gould Piano Trio. If the current crop of British-based string quartet ensembles were overseas exports, they would certainly go a long way to assist the country’s balance of payments deficit.

In a recent review of the Brahms String Quartet Op. 51/1 and String Quintet Op. 111 on EMI Classics 5-57661-2, I wrote that the performances from the marvellous Belcea Quartet under the leadership of Corina Belcea ranked them on an equal level with the finest ensembles in Europe. I have continued to observe their progress, both in the recital hall as well as in the recording studio. On the evidence of this new release the Belceas have matured into an ensemble that can vie with the very best.

As a young man Britten was fascinated by the genre of the string quartet and there survive a number of works, in various stages of completion, that he composed before his twentieth birthday; notably the Quartettino (1930), the Alla Marcia movement (1933), the Alla quartetto serioso Go play, boy, play’ (1933), a string quartet version of the Simple Symphony and two unpublished String Quartets; one in F major (1928) and second in D major (1931). These scores are more than mere off-cuts from the master’s workbench; they are rewarding and largely significant works. Experience has shown that when dealing with a talent that blossomed early, absolutely nothing of Britten’s output should be discounted.      

Spanning thirty-four years, the three mature officially numbered string quartets undoubtedly form the core of Britten’s considerable achievement in the genre. In the writing one can observe Britten’s concern and fascination with the intricacies of form, including the utilisation of the sonata form, the chaconne, the burlesque and the passacaglia. 

Britten’s String Quartet No.1 dates from 1941, when the composer was in self-imposed exile in the United States with his companion the tenor Peter Pears. There he was commissioned, evidently for the sum of $400, by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the wealthy and eminent American music patron, to write a string quartet. Britten completed the score in the space of two months, while he was staying rent free at the home of the British piano duo Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, in Escondido, Los Angeles. Britten wrote, “Short notice and a bit of a sweat … but I’ll do it as the cash will be useful.” It is said that Britten had to shut himself away in the garden tool-shed, far away from the noise of the Robertsons practising. Britten attended the premičre of the swiftly completed score on a Los Angeles college campus. It was composed in the same highly productive year as his operetta, Paul Bunyan; the Suite for orchestra, Matinées musicales, Op. 24 and the Scottish Ballad for two pianos and orchestra, Op. 26. 

The four movement String Quartet No.1 is the most classical in form of all the three numbered quartets. The first movement is concerned with the interaction of the recurring opening andante and the earthy vigour of the concentrated sonata-like allegro. I didn’t find either the Magginis or the Sorrels quite as convincing here as the Belceas who provided those additional elements of concentration and depth. The second movement is a busy march-like dance in which the Magginis have more energy and spikier rhythms than their rivals.

The slow third movement marked andante commodo provides a welcome contrast to what has gone before. Britten searches for a calm serenity but nothing can ever be fully relaxing here with Britten. The Belceas superbly bring out the tension and anxieties that lie under the surface. The Sorrels linger the longest and only just avoid excessive strain and exaggeration. The closing movement marked molto vivace contains Haydnish high spirits and concludes in a dazzling tour de force. Both the Belceas and the Magginis offer startling rhythmic control with considerable lyrical appeal.

The astonishing three movement String Quartet No. 2 was composed in the UK in 1945, shortly after the successful premičre of Britten’s masterwork the opera, Peter Grimes. In 1945 Britten had toured Germany as piano accompanist to Yehudi Menuhin, who had agreed to perform for the survivors of the concentration camps, including the infamous Belsen camp. Britten must have been deeply moved by his experiences on tour and it was upon his return that he completed the quartet.

The quartet was commissioned by Mary Behrens, a mutual friend of the artist Stanley Spencer, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. Purcell was a composer whom Britten highly respected and admired, and later turned to for the theme to his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Britten was to donate most of his commission fee to support famine relief in India. 

Following the premičre of the quartet at the Wigmore Hall, London, by the all-female Zorian String Quartet, Britten explained to Mary Behrend that the work seemed to be, “the greatest advance that I have yet made.” That year Britten was to write three major works to commemorate Purcell’s anniversary; the two works already mentioned and the song cycle: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

The opening movement of the score is described as a sonata-allegro; which utilises more sonata principles than sonata form. As the movement progresses it alternates between feverish energy and a feeling of exhaustion. The Sorrel are best at providing the distinct contrasts, imparting a heightened engagement and intensity. There is a real sense of playing on-the-edge, for that extra element of tension and disturbance.  

The central scherzo movement, marked vivace, is a vigorous tarantella for muted strings. This disconcerting movement has been described as ‘uncanny’, ‘eerie’ and ‘panic-stricken’. The fine playing of the Magginis and the Belceas is not able to offer quite the same bite and agitation as the Sorrels so superbly convey.  

It is in the final movement that Britten pays homage to Purcell by writing a massive nineteen-minute chacony (or chaconne) consisting of a theme and twenty-one variations, arranged into four groups and separated by solo cadenzas for cello, viola and the first violin. In the chacony all three accounts are splendidly interpreted. The Sorrels give the music a mood of nervousness and confusion, with a sense of continual searching for salvation. The tension gradually lessens in intensity and becomes more invigorated and less confusing. The Magginis and especially the Belceas play with expert precision and restraint but cannot equal the amount of intensity and bewilderment that the Sorrels uncover in the score.        

The five movement String Quartet No. 3 was written in 1975, close to the end of Britten’s life and was the stricken composer’s swansong; his final completed work. The quartet was composed at the request and insistence of Hans Keller, the musician, writer and broadcaster, who is also the work’s dedicatee.

The harrowing score, that at times seems to challenge the passage of time, was premičred by the Amadeus Quartet, at Snape Maltings, in December 1976; only fifteen days after the composer’s death. The Amadeus had the fortune to rehearse the score with Britten, at Aldeburgh, some weeks earlier.

At the time of writing the String Quartet No. 3, Britten’s poor and deteriorating health was a cause of great concern and it was a considerable achievement that the composer managed to complete the work. In spite of his weak physical condition Britten actually composed the finale and completed the work while managing to take a holiday in Venice. Since his heart operation in 1973 Britten needed the use of a wheelchair and had partial paralysis of his right hand, causing difficulties with piano playing and writing.

The composer Colin Matthews, who was providing Britten with considerable help at this time, tells me that at the time of composing the score Britten could only play the piano with his left hand and needed his assistance to play through the sketches. The score was written out by Britten’s assistant Rosamund Strode. A brief account of these sessions is given in Alan Blyth’s book, Remembering Britten, Hutchinson, London (1981).

Britten’s fascinating and complex personality has been well documented. The Quartet does strongly come across as music composed by an often cold and suspicious man of great extremes. It is easy to imagine the man who achieved great professional success and was the recipient of the highest honours from the Queen, yet privately he had been at odds with many aspects of the world and in some ways had found himself at the margins of society. With the score of the String Quartet No. 3 it genuinely feels that the rapidly deteriorating Britten was withdrawing into his own private world.

The sound world of Britten’s String Quartet No.3 seems to me strongly evocative of his friend Shostakovich’s four late string quartets. The pervading mood of austerity and desolation in Britten’s Third Quartet leaves one convinced that he had studied Shostakovich’s scores and wondering if he had actually managed to hear the works, either in recital, on LP or by radio broadcast. The relative dates of the quartets make this a distinct possibility. The twelfth and thirteenth quartets were performed at Aldeburgh in 1970 and 1974 respectively and could well have been broadcast. Although it is thought unlikely that Britten heard the fourteenth or fifteenth quartets, they were published in 1974, so he could easily have studied the scores.

Colin Matthews informs me that, although Britten may not have been familiar with Shostakovich's late quartets, it certainly seems that the 14th Symphony was an influence on his String Quartet No. 3. Britten, who was the dedicatee of the score, had conducted the Western premičre of the 14th, at the Aldeburgh Festival, in 1970. He also considers that Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 is close to the world of his three solo Cello Suites (1964-71), with their increasingly free form and imaginative range. At one time Britten even thought to call the String Quartet No. 3 a ‘divertimento’ because of its unconventional shape and at times almost improvisatory nature.

In the opening movement of the String Quartet No. 3, entitled duets, Britten utilises all the six possible combinations of the four instruments. The work begins with a gently rocking sonata-like moderato. The mood has been described as being evocative of the lapping waters of the Venice canals. The Belceas respond best to the unearthly beauty of this movement; so spare in texture. The short second movement scherzo is a striding and airy ostinato, built on four notes spanning three octaves, that becomes agitated and ends abruptly. The Belcea and Maggini handle the restlessness and unsettling mood of the ostinato movement exquisitely.

Entitled solo the central movement has been described as a slow spiritual song of rare simplicity framing an outburst of birdsong. The Belceas perform with deep concentration to constantly maintain the atmosphere and interest of the mood. To me this evokes a flat, cold landscape of total despair. The fourth movement is another short scherzo, in the form of a burlesque. All three ensembles understand the obsessive and frenetic character of the movement, that musicologist Peter Evans described as, “a dance of death”.    

Subtitled La serenissima, as it was composed during Britten’s last holiday in Venice, the protracted final movement recitative and passacaglia has a dark and unsettling nature that borders on the sinister. The recurrent theme in the passacaglia, with which the cello supports the music, derives partly from the sound of the Venice church bells that Britten so adored and could hear from his hotel balcony whilst on holiday. Easily identifiable in the final movement is Britten’s use of the most recognisable motif, Aschenbach’s ‘I love you’, from his opera Death in Venice, which is heard in various distorted forms, repeatedly. The Belceas playing with an unearthly beauty draws the listener into a trance-like state, with music that seems to recognise Britten’s private and painful recognition that his life was slowly slipping away. The desolate and unsettling music of the String Quartet No. 3 can leave one exhausted. The ‘I love you’ motif, in particular, remained lodged in my memory for several days afterwards.    

The Three Divertimenti (1936) are short, improved movements from Britten’s incomplete suite for string quartet Alla Quartetto Serioso, to which he gave the subtitle ‘Go play, boy, play’. Britten composed the work while a student at the Royal College of Music in 1933, revising it three years later.

The score for Go play, boy, play was intended as a series of character movements of school friends. Britten had stored it away in a drawer. The first subject was David Layton from Gresham's School at Holt, his Public school and the third a portrait of Francis Barton, a friend from South Lodge in Lowestoft, his earlier Preparatory school. Britten gave the three movements the descriptive titles PT, At the Party and Ragging.

The score of the Three Divertimenti was premičred by the Stratton Quartet (later to become the Aeolian Quartet) at the Wigmore Hall, in February 1936. After the performance, Britten who was undoubtedly downcast, wrote that the work was, “Received with sniggers and pretty cold silence. Why, I don’t know. Following a disparaging review by J. A. Westrup, in the Daily Telegraph, Britten abandoned and withdrew the work. 

The opening movement was one of the earliest examples of Britten using a march, a practice that he was frequently to employ. The Belcea Quartet respond best to the tempestuous and frenetic march, with an unforced energy and dynamism. The delightful central movement waltz contains an air of serenity and provides a welcome contrast, made the most of by the more marked approach of the Magginis. Britten employs a burlesque in the vigorous final movement; which was a form that he came to favour. The nervy and restless burlesque is exceptionally well handled by the Belceas, with the utmost precision and considerable verve.   

I wonder how satisfied Britten would have been with so many excellent accounts of his String Quartets now available in the catalogues. Few buyers would be disappointed with any of the three complete versions that I have used here comparatively. Each one is excellent in its own way. If forced to choose just one set, my premier choice would be these masterful performances from the Belcea Quartet. They are impressively assured accounts, providing an exceptional penetration, with unequalled insights. The interpretations are so exceptional, it felt as if Britten was sitting in with the Belceas directing the proceedings. In the String Quartet No 2 only, the version from the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos is my personal favourite and would be my first choice. This valuable Sorrel recording comes with first class accounts of Britten’s early F major and D major String Quartets.

In the Belceas set, I experienced a spectacular, icy cool and crystal clear sound that serves Britten’s music admirably. The players are closely recorded but none the worse for that. The sound is so lifelike at times I could have been positioned on the bridge of their respective instruments. On Chandos, the Sorrel performances are complemented by an exceptionally clear and warm sound. The Maggini accounts on Naxos are very well recorded but I found the sound to be in a slightly narrower range by comparison with the Belcea and slightly less clear than both the Belcea and the Sorrel.

There is another complete set of the Britten String Quartets from the Brodsky Quartet, that is available across two CDs on the Challenge Classics label Nos. CC72106 and CC72099. Britten’s Three Divertimenti and Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 are also included. The Brodsky set has the insights provided by the assistance of Colin Matthews at their recording session and I have seen favourable comments given to the set in a prestigious review guide. Nevertheless, I felt unwilling to add the set to my collection, following my extreme disappointment with the lacklustre nature of their performances at the last two Brodsky recitals I attended. Clearly, I am only reporting my personal reaction to my experience of the Brodskys live in recital and I may be depriving myself of a outstanding Britten set. 

Compared to the rival super-budget price Naxos and the full price Chandos versions, the timings on this mid-price double set from the Belceas on EMI Classics provides short measure. On the first Belcea CD there is certainly adequate space to have included, say, the string quartet version of the Simple Symphony or the Quartettino. On the second Belcea CD, which lasts an ungenerous thirty-six minutes, either of the two early String Quartets in F major and D major could have been included. I guess that spread across both of the CDs it would even have been possible to have fitted on both of the early String Quartets.

Britten is exceptionally well served by these recordings of his three numbered String Quartets and any of the three sets will provide considerable pleasure. I feel truly privileged to have this spectacular release from the Belceas in my collection. My advice is to obtain it immediately. A stunning set!

(I wish to thank the composer Colin Matthews for providing me with some useful information for this review.)

Michael Cookson




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