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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 (Corina Belcea (violin); Laura Samuel (violin);  Krzystof Chorzelski (viola); Alasdair Tait (cello)).
rec. No. 3: July 2003; 28 June, 3 July 2004, Potton Hall, Suffolk, U.K.
EMI CLASSICS 2285182 [58:10 + 36:24]
Experience Classicsonline

As part of my preparation for writing this present review I searched MusicWeb International and discovered Michael Cookson’s excellent essay-sized review of this superb landmark recording – albeit in a different packaging. It is not my intention to try to expand those comments or largely repeat what he has already said with authority.
 
I will agree with him straightaway that this present re-issue is “an exciting event”, and that I am privileged “to have this spectacular release in my collection.”
 
It is fair to argue that the String Quartet No.1 is the least popular, if that is the correct word, of the three numbered works in this genre. Yet, as this present recording certainly reveals, it would be a pity if this work was somehow sidelined: if it was to be ignored by concert planners and recording studios. The statistics do suggest that this has already occurred. The Arkiv CD database notes some eleven or twelve recordings of the Second and Third Quartets, whereas the First has only five.
 
I did not discover this First Quartet until the Chandos release in 1996, however, in many ways it has become a personal favourite. I would certainly agree with Peter Branscome, writing in the 2002 Aldeburgh Festival guide, that this work, along with the Sinfonia da Requiem, was an “outstanding product of Britten’s years in the USA.” The work was composed whilst Britten and Pears were staying in Escondido in California.
 
It is perhaps not surprising that this quartet was commissioned by the redoubtable Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and that it was her quartet that gave the first performance in Los Angeles in September 1941.  And, in spite of the subsequent lack of interest in this work, it won the Library of Congress Medal for services to Chamber Music.
 
Much has been made of its classical outline with a balanced four-movement structure and “subtle integration of thematic, tonal and rhythmic elements.” This technical description diminishes the fact that this is a moving work that well deserves its place alongside the other Coolidge commissions - those by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokofiev.
 
Perhaps the most memorable part is the slow, high pitched ‘molto vibrato’ motif for the violins and viola which is juxtaposed with the pizzicato chords and arpeggios of the cello with which the first movement opens. It is surely unique in quartet-writing up to that time. The ‘scherzo’ may well remind the listener of Shostakovitch with its “bizarre trills and triplets”.  The lyrical third movement, an 'andante calmo', has been compared with the ‘Moonlight’ interlude from Peter Grimes - and with good reason. The finale epitomises the classical nature of much of this Quartet with more than a hat tip in the direction of Haydn.
 
The Second Quartet was written only some four years after the first. It was to be another thirty before the Third would see the light of day. The piece was composed shortly after the premiere of Peter Grimes and was commissioned by Mary Behrens. It was a work that Britten was immensely pleased with - in fact he wrote to his sponsor claiming that it “was the greatest advance that I have yet made”, and that the composition of this work had given him “encouragement to continue on new lines …”
 
This Second Quartet was one of Britten’s three responses to the 250th anniversary of the death of Purcell – the other two being the Holy Sonnets of John Donne and the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. However, Michael Kennedy tellingly points out that although the great Second Quartet was first performed on the Henry Purcell anniversary - 21 November 1945 - and that the work contained a finale entitled a Chacony, the Donne Songs were actually closer to Purcell’s music.
 
Nothing is quite as it seems with this work. The opening ‘sonata-allegro’ is Britten’s interpretation of the classical form. In fact, it would be fair to say that the entire movement is almost a continuous exposition with not a lot of development! But this is great music that is logically argued – in spite of the reworking of ‘traditional’ structures. The first movement ends with a tranquil coda that does not quite prepare the listener for the rather unusual scherzo. It is well described in the programme notes as “a vigorous tarantella for muted strings, suggesting a shadow play of shapes, half recalled from the first movement”. Kennedy suggests that this music is often described as being ‘eerie’ but I agree with him that it is actually more ‘panic stricken’ in mood.
 
The final movement is the heart of the Quartet. It lasts longer than the first two movements put together. The genius of this ‘chacony’ is that the music seems to strike off in a totally new or at least different direction to what has preceded it. It opens with a nine bar theme and is followed by some twenty-one variations which are arranged into three groups of harmonic, rhythmic and contrapuntally-derived music. There are also three variations which are largely related to the ‘ground’ theme.  The groups of variation are separated by solo cadenzas. The work finishes in the home key of C major, thus bringing the work to a satisfying conclusion.
 
It is fairly well known, I think, that when Britten was recovering from a major heart operation in 1974, he turned his mind to the string quartet once again. Initially, it was to a work that he had composed back in 1931 - the F major Quartet. He revised this work and prepared it for publication, almost as a kind of therapy - to help him regain his confidence in composition. It is surely this work that led the composer to consider writing a new piece for the medium – some thirty years after the magisterial Second Quartet.
 
The Third was begun in October 1975, just after the score for the cantata Phaedra had been completed.  It was finished in November during Britten’s stay in Venice – his last visit to that city. The work was dedicated to the music critic Hans Keller.
 
Since first hearing this music a number of years ago I have always found it the most difficult of the three numbered quartets to come to terms with. Yet I have no doubt that the work is a masterpiece. It is this dichotomy that may have caused the work to be less popular than the Second. Michael Kennedy sums up the situation well in his book in the ‘Master Musicians’ Series. He notes that “the music of this Quartet represents the essence of Britten’s musical achievement over a creative span of fifty years.” This work looks back over the composer’s life but also looks forward – in the same manner as Death in Venice had suggested a new dawn in his music. Kennedy suggests that in this work Britten “achieved the clarity and the succinctness and recaptured the imaginative poetry” [of his earlier works].
 
The Third Quartet is a massive work – some five movements span nearly half an hour - 25 minutes in the Belcea recording: just under the half hour in the Sorrel interpretation. The main thrust is surely revealed in the two outer movements. The centre-point of repose – the very calm ‘solo’ is framed by two extrovert ‘scherzos’. Although the five movement structure could be defined as a ‘divertimento’ – in the eighteenth century sense, the seriousness of the music banishes this idea. Colin Matthews has written that the starting point is “the fantasy and virtuosity of the Suites for Cello - the only other large-scale chamber works of Britten’s last ten years - and it belongs to their essentially serious world.”
 
Perhaps the key to this piece – the poetic, if not the actual heart of the work - is the last movement: the Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima). This is a slow-moving, elegy that definitely evokes the world of Aschenbach – even adopting ‘his’ key of E major. Some of this music is relaxed but the work surely ends inconclusively. Nothing is decided - the answer appears to be a question?
 
From my personal point of view this is a work that I ought to make more efforts to get to know. Certainly, the present recording has made me listen-up and think again about this obvious last masterpiece by one of the most important British composers. It is a work that stands alongside Beethoven and Shostakovich’s last quartets.
 
I cannot quite recall when I first heard the Three Divertimenti for string quartet. Yet these early works – written originally when Britten was twenty years old - have always impressed me. The present work is a later revision of a suite of “sharply defined character movements” called Alla Quartetto Serioso: Go play, boy, play: the subtitle was taken from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. There were to have been five movements, however only three were completed as part of that score. Interestingly, an Alla Marcia reappeared in the ‘Parade’ movement of Les Illuminations and an Alla Romanza exists as a sketch. I do not know if this has been recorded. The work was not well received being greeted with “sniggers and pretty cold silence”. In February 1936 the composer revised the music as the Three Divertimenti.  The opening March was extensively revised – complete with a new glissando figure. The Waltz must surely be one of the composer’s most charming confections. Finally the Burlesque is a technically difficult but ultimately rewarding ‘toccata’.
 
I agree with Michael Cookson’s statement that there are “so many excellent accounts of his [Britten’s] String Quartets available…” I have noted the respective numbers at the start of my review. Furthermore, I agree with him that few listeners would be disappointed with the Maggini, Sorrel or Belcea versions.
 
I would not like to be forced to choose one single version for my library – I believe that all three bring important insights. I guess that if the chips were down it would be the Belcea CDs for the overall interpretation. However, the Sorrel would be my choice for ‘value for money’.
 
Which brings me to this: I have only two reservations about this CD. Firstly, I felt that it is a little short on music. For example the Sorrel Quartet on the two Chandos discs manages to ‘squeeze’ in the Alla Marcia and the two unnumbered quartets from 1928 and 1931 – giving over 145 minutes of music. The present edition has a mere 95 minutes, making the £8 price tag less of a bargain. Secondly I would have expected much more detailed ‘programme notes’ for what is a major contribution to the art of British chamber music. Not every listener will have a library of books and articles about Britten and his music to fall back on.
 
However, the bottom line is, that this is a superb performance, and taken purely from that point of view deserves to be in every Britten enthusiast’s CD library.
 
John France
 


 


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