Monday 2 December 2013

Britten String Quartets

The Endellion String Quartet - Britten Quartets - 2564 64200-8
This new disc from the Endellion String Quartet brings together Benjamin Britten's three major string quartets and his three early Divertimenti. The quartet, members Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson and David Waterman, was founded in 1979, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season. The disc includes the three quartets which Britten numbered,  plus the Divertimenti which he wrote in 1936 but withdrew after the first performance.

Britten wrote for string quartet from early in his life. His first numbered quartet was written in California in 1941, commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The first movement starts with an Andante Sostenuto which evokes the world of Abraham and Isaac but it is less comfortable. The high string writing sounds difficult and Britten probably intended it to, but the quartet's playing is masterly here. The cello pizzicati are warmer and less edgy than on some discs. When the Allegro vivo comes the playing is wonderfully incisive with crisp brilliance and driving rhythms. The intensity of their playing stays even when the texture of the music thins, throughout there is a strong sense of dialogue between them.

The Allegro con slancio starts as a crisp march, with the triplet interruptions brilliantly explosive, distorting the harmony finally developing into slithery brilliance. The Andante calmo is calmer but no less intense, with an unnerving undertow. There are some lovely rhapsodic moments and distinct hints of Peter Grimes come in as well.  It is an impressive and thoughtful performance, with lovely long breathed paragraphs. The quartet finishes with a Molto Vivace full of strenuous virtuosity which brings memories of Britten's other early string writing. The Endellion String Quartet's performance isn't an easy one, it is wonderfully intense, edgy at times and highly driven.

Britten's second quartet dates from 1945, only four years later, but it in the intervening years Peter Grimes had happened. The three movement piece is the product of Britten's real maturity. The opening Allegro Calmo starts with eerie calm and a lovely tone from the players. They bring out the sense of uneasy dialogue and contrasts, which develop into the most amazing ensemble with brilliant textures, leading to a transcendent coda. The Vivace is intense and crisp, with forward motion and an amazing right texture sound. It is a dark and anxious, but rather more present than the muted strings would have suggested. The work finishes with the amazing Chacony, longer than the two previous movements put together. It is dark and sober, with finely controlled spare textures. The performers turn in an account of real sustained power and an amazing long breathed sweep.

And then there is a gap. Britten didn't write another quartet for 30 years. His third quartet dates from 1975, composed after his heart operation and suffused with the music of his last opera, Death in Venice. The first movement, Duets, is closely argued and spare, with haunting textures, eerie and anxious. Ostinato starts vividly with some incisively crisp playing, before developing a magical transparency, and rather perky rhythms. The whole full of the players' technical brilliance. Solo sees an eerie violin solo, played with an intense sense of line and wonderfully rapt. The middle section is a wonderfully rhapsodic episode based rather remarkably on bird-song from Britten's garden. Burlesque is a heavy handed scherzo, with a strong bass line, though at times you feel as if the bird-song from the previous movement is trying to come back. The final movement, Recitativo and Passacaglia (La Serenissima) was composed in Venice and includes quotations from Death in Venice. The Endellion String Quartet make something magical but disturbing, the textures transparent but with jagged moments amid the rhapsodic fragments. The movement gradually develops in power leading to a magical coda.

Whilst he was still at college, Britten was working on a suite for string quartet, but though he worked on it from 1933 to 1936 only three movements were completed, but the audience reception at their premiere in 1936 at the Wigmore Hall was cool and Britten withdrew them and they were not performed again until after his death. March starts with a hard-edged fanfare, and we get glissandi and fragmentation before the march proper starts in a rather catchy fashion. You rather sense Britten (and the players) having a great deal of fun under the serious surface. And there's a great, throw-away ending. The Waltz is a lilting delight, with disturbing elements under the surface. The Burlesque is a fast and furious movement, with another characterful ending.

This is an intense and strongly felt disc with brings out Britten's masterpieces in the quartet genre. Of course, it is not without competition, the Takacs Quartet have also issued their own celebratory set this year. But this disc is sure to win many admirers.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - String Quartet No. 1 in D major, op.25 [25.48]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - String Quartet No. 2 in C major, op.36 [27.26]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - String Quartet No.3, op.94b [25.35]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) -Three Divertimenti [9.53]
The Endellion String Quartet (Andrew Watkinson - violin 1, Ralph de Souza - violin 2, Garfield Jackson - viola, David Waterman - cello)
Recorded 22-26 July 2013, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 64200-8 2CD's [53.15, 35.30]

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