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Britten: String Quartets No 1, 2 & 3 / Takacs Quartet

Britten / Takacs Quartet
Release Date: 11/12/2013 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 68004  
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Takács String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN String Quartets Nos. 1–3 Takács Qrt HYPERION 68004 (75:55)

The Takács Quartet, currently Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violins, Geraldine Walther, viola, and András Feiér, cello, has been garnering awards for over 35 years, and has recorded the complete Bartók, Beethoven, and Brahms quartets. Here we get the numbered quartets from another “B.”

Britten’s three numbered quartets—there are at least two others as well Read more as other pieces with string quartet—can be seen as the bookends of his mature creative life. The First, written in a toolshed in California in 1941, was to a commission from the ever-generous Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The Second, from 1945, followed in the wake of the success of Peter Grimes and was written with the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell in mind. The Third Quartet however, came 30 years later, and was drafted in Venice in 1975 and first performed at the Snape Maltings two weeks after Britten’s death in 1976. It seems to me, too, that these three quartets chart the evolution of Britten’s musical thought in a useful way.

Britten thought the First Quartet was his “best piece so far,” and the whole Quartet struck English reviewers after its later first performance in London as something finally new from him. The very opening, where the pizzicato cello strikes the theme against an ostinato-like weave of the upper voices, all of which then alternates with a fast, rhapsodic explosion, was a technique Britten was to use in many guises over the years ( Canticle II and the Second Quartet, for instance). This is relieved by a brief, “impulsive,” second movement. The third movement, Andante calmo , is a strongly reflective piece, and it is here there are differences with other performances of this quartet. The Endellion, for instance (whose thoughtful performance has again been released on EMI), take it at more than two minutes slower, which gives it a weight that seems to look forward to the long third movement of the Second Quartet, the famous “Chacony,” though the form is different.

The Second and Third quartets are probably the most performed, and ArkivMusic lists more recordings of them than of the First. One of the things that has always struck me about the Second Quartet is that, though coming right after the darkness of Peter Grimes and the song cycle The Sonnets of John Donne , there is a lightness in the first two movements that is not entirely dissipated in the complex variations of the chaconne which closes the Quartet. The present recording is, by a good bit, the fastest I have of this Quartet, not least in this movemet, for which Britten merely prescribes Sostenuto . The Takács have a more pointed, even aggressive, sound generally and are recorded fairly closely, which gives an urgency to their reading, but I prefer the more intense and nuanced approach of the Emperor (BIS) in this Quartet.

I heard the Amadeus Quartet, to whom it is dedicated, play Britten’s Third six months after they gave its first performance, and I recall how shocked I was—shocked in the sense that this was a musical discourse from Britten I had never heard before. I wanted nothing so much as to hear it again at once, for it suggested that the composer was on the cusp of a major shift in his musical thinking, but the nature of recitals is such that this was not to be. At a reception afterwards, the violinist Siegmund Nissel told me it had taken them a year to learn the piece and that they got a week’s worth of discussion with Britten about it before he died.

The structure of this Quartet departs from the traditional form in that it has five relatively short movements which make a sort of symmetrical arch. Indeed, Britten originally used “divertimento” as a working description of it. But what really struck me as different about it was its musical language. Though recognizably Britten’s, it was clearly pushing in a new, bolder, direction, more thematic than melodic. The variation techniques of which he was a master are less evident here.

As generally on this disc, the Takács take slightly faster tempos than most, though they come close to those of the Amadeus Quartet. This comes about because they take the third movement much faster and the fifth slower, if not as slow as the Endellion. In a sense, one might say the Takács offer a more “modern” reading of this Quartet than their earlier colleagues: It is assertive and straightforward. I can recommend this recording for that reason and, curiously, because, apart from collected boxes of Britten’s works, the only single discs of all three quartets I can find currently in print on ArkivMusic are those by the Belcea Quartet, recommended by Paul Ingram (29:2), and the Maggini Quartet, recommended by Richard Burke (22:4), neither of which I have heard. Nonetheless, this one is welcome as a different take on these wonderful quartets.

FANFARE: Alan Swanson
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Works on This Recording

1. Quartet for Strings no 3, Op. 94 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Takács String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; England 
2. Quartet for Strings no 2 in C major, Op. 36 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Takács String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945; England 
3. Quartet for Strings no 1 in D major, Op. 25 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Takács String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; England 

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