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.
Nos. 1 and 3, Three Divertimenti (1936) and Alla Marcia (1933),
from the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos CHAN 9469.
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.
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Simple Symphony and two unpublished String Quartets;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 première 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
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 première 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 première 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
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
The harrowing score, that at times seems to challenge
the passage of time, was premièred 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
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 première 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
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
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 premièred
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
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
wish to thank the composer Colin
Matthews for providing
me with some useful information for this review.)