Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets Nos. 1–3
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 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
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 (
and the Second Quartet, for instance). This is relieved by a brief, “impulsive,” second movement. The third movement,
, 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
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
. 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
Since they found a home with Hyperion the Takács Quartet have wasted no time in shoring up their already enviable reputation; their recording of the Schubert Quintet was loaded with accolades on all sides.
This well-timed release of Britten’s numbered quartets, recorded and released in the centenary year, will win them even more praise. There is a wonderful intimacy to both their playing and the recorded sound, but they’re not beyond making an unlovely sound when they need to. You hear that right at the opening of the First Quartet: the diatonic opening to the first movement sounds mysterious, but also oddly disconnected, as though it consisted of two strains of music that were refusing to listen to one another. The players then set about the main allegro section with arresting vigour and vitality. In fact, it was here, especially, that their playing reminded me of the muscularity and energy that they brought to their outstanding Beethoven interpretations. Their playing also reminds you that this was young man’s music, written to a commission when the 20-year old composer was in the USA taking refuge from the Second World War. The Allegretto second movement is played with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour, the players seeming to pose and answer questions from one another like a communal chat. There is then a hushed warmth to the opening of the slow movement, with an element of danger creeping into the repeated notes of the central section; but overall it’s an uncanny sense of communion that characterises the movement, whereas it’s skittish invention that characterises the finale.
The transparency of the playing lays open the harmonic inventiveness of the Second Quartet’s first movement. Again, though, there is an architectural vigour in the way they treat the themes, be it the spidery harmonics or the warm, chorale-like chords. The work builds, through the scherzo, to the climax of the third movement Chacony, which is perhaps the climax of the whole disc. The Takács unmistakeably grasp the scale of Britten’s structural genius here, and it is as if their playing takes on a greater scale to match it. They work their way through the kaleidoscopic range of variations with consummate skill and a great ear for detail, bringing out the vast range of differences over the essential unifying factor of the theme. There is richness, depth, eeriness and beauty. The cadenzas that separate each group of variations are played with incredible artistry, and the repeated C major chords that end the movement seem to radiate both affirmation and authority.
The Third Quartet comes from 1975, towards the very end of the composer’s life, after Death in Venice and Britten’s heart operation. The sound world is perceptibly different from the very start. The music seems to grope its way uncertainly into being, and Geraldine Walther’s viola sounds particularly fantastic here, providing what little anchoring the piece has at this point. When the more contrapuntal elements do emerge there is still an element of insecurity hanging over the music and the first movement comes to an end in predominant mood of uncertainty. The two scherzo movements are played with much more assertiveness, but that uncertain sense of searching permeates the central slow movement, too. Again, the Takács players seem to recapture that sense of disconnectedness that characterised the very opening of the disc, and for a few moments this also filters into the finale, permeated with its references to Death in Venice. When the main theme kicks in around the three-minute mark, though, the music seems gently to take on an uncanny combination of resignation and purposefulness. As the movement progresses this seems to flower into something profound, combining harmonic invention and melodic security with an unavoidable sense of finality. It’s difficult to shake off the fact that Britten was dying as he wrote this music, and he must have known that his illness would finally finish him - Colin Matthews acted as his amanuensis for much of the composition process, and Britten struggled even to sit through a private performance from the Amadeus Quartet in 1976. This sense of passing is underlined even further, perhaps unconsciously, by the way the final bar seems almost to break off in mid-sentence.
The all-important sense of ambiguity, present to a greater or lesser degree in all of this music - though perhaps especially in the Third’s finale - is conveyed with the utmost delicacy and discretion by the players, putting their interpretation towards the top of the league table for these works.
Anyone wanting to engage seriously with Britten’s quartets will need to do business with the Belcea Quartet, who also provide some of the youthful divertimenti, and the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos who provide still more in their two disc edition, but the Takács’ contribution to the Britten centenary is able to look those performers in the face.
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International Read less
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