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Britten: String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 & Alla Marcia / Emperor Quartet

Release Date: 09/24/2013 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1570   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emperor Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Length: 0 Hours 55 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3. Alla Marcia Emperor Qrt BIS 1570 (SACD: 55:40)

For a long time Britten’s First published Quartet (No. 1 in D, op. 25) was overshadowed by his Second, with its impressive, large-scale Chaconne Finale. In this program, and in particular in the Emperor Quartet’s thoughtful and pointed performance, we can hear what an individual and significant work the First Quartet is. It is filled with harbingers of what was to come: The very opening—high Read more violin chords (more like tonal clusters) with a triadic pizzicato passage underneath—foreshadows the atmospheric string writing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream written 18 years later. The same pizzicato figure was also later used in the canticle Abraham and Isaac , and in the Offertorium from the War Requiem . In this Quartet Britten established a number of his stylistic fingerprints: the juggling of thematic fragments, so integral to the second and fourth movements, and a penchant for open textures employing extremes of range (high violins and low cello) with no filling in between, most unlike the full-textured writing of Bax and Walton. The composer who influenced Britten in terms of textural clarity and structural ingenuity was his mentor, Frank Bridge, who happened to be the finest English composer of quartets in the previous generation. (Britten’s op. 25 was composed in 1941, the year of Bridge’s death; Bridge’s Fourth and final Quartet only four years prior.) The emotional resonance of the third movement, Andante calmo, typified by its tonal harmonies and strong climactic passages, brings to mind the open-hearted Sonnets of Michelangelo , composed in the same period.

Obvious emotive elements would disappear from the composer’s late works, which are frequently described as cool and detached, yet they return transformed in his Third Quartet, op. 94. The latter is one of his last works, written in late 1975 in the wake of his final opera, Death in Venice , from which the Quartet quotes. The warmth of the third (“Solo”) and fifth (“La Serenissima”) movements is primarily calm, resigned, and nostalgic. Mahler was always a favorite composer of Britten’s, and in a subtle way there is a feeling of Mahlerian valediction to this great work. The Third Quartet concludes as the First opened, with soft legato violins underpinned by gentle pizzicato, neatly bringing the program to full circle. These players handle the inconclusive closing measures of Britten’s ultimate passacaglia with poised simplicity.

Between the two numbered quartets comes Alla marcia (from 1933), which later formed the basis for one of Britten’s Rimbaud settings in Les Illuminations . It is a quirky and even sassy little piece, at least in this performance where the musicians really make the syncopated rhythm swing.

A number of recordings of Britten’s quartets are around at the moment—another new one has appeared from the Takács Quartet on Hyperion—all helping to cement the place of these works in the chamber repertoire. The members of the Emperor Quartet appear to be quite young: they are Martin Burgess and Clare Hayes (violins), Fiona Bonds (viola), and William Schofield (cello). Their main competition is the similarly young and equally brilliant Belcea Quartet (EMI). Perhaps the Belcea produces richer tone as an ensemble, whereas the Emperor is more incisive, but there is virtually nothing in the comparison. Both are marvelous. BIS’s super-audio sound is, as usual, vivid and present. Regardless of competition, the performances on this disc are so compelling that once you are under their spell you can’t imagine the music being done any other way, or being done better. I believe that is a pretty clear recommendation.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 3, Op. 94 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emperor Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; England 
Quartet for Strings no 1 in D major, Op. 25 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emperor Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; England 
Alla Marcia for String Quartet by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emperor Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; England 

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