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Britten: String Quartets, Divertimenti / Endellion String Quartet

Release Date: 11/19/2013 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 42008   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Endellion String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN String Quartets Nos. 1–3. 3 Divertimenti Endellion Str Qrt WARNER 64200 (2 CDs: 88:42)

This new recording of Britten’s three quartets and three Divetimenti is splendidly played by the Endellion Quartet. The earliest of the works, the Divertimenti, are good pieces but not great ones, though the musical and emotional commitment of the Endellion players make them Read more seem so. Yet where the quality of the music is fully up to the high quality of their performances, as in the full-scale quartets, the results are pretty impressive. The notes suggest that, particularly in this First Quartet, Britten was using Beethoven as a model, even though he had publicly dismissed Beethoven in favor of Schubert. This may be so, but I hear very little of either Beethoven or Schubert in this music; it is, however, excellent nonetheless, based (as usual for Britten) as much on mood as on structure. Indeed, my impression of the first movement of this Quartet is of hesitancy—not just hesitancy in mood but also in the way the music is constructed, the brusque and almost fragmentary themes marked by a feeling of interruption. Only with the second movement ( Allegretto con slancio ) do we feel a surge of momentum as the music plunges headlong in a sort of perpetual motion. Surprisingly the third movement, marked Andante calmo, is anything but—in fact, its emotions seem to positively seethe in this music, alternating with lyrical episodes that have a feeling of disquiet about them. Much to my surprise (and possibly the first audience’s), the final Molto vivace is exceptionally playful, although with an undercurrent of drama (but not menace).

The Second Quartet, though ostensibly written by the composer at full maturity (1945, after Peter Grimes ), seemed to me less interesting structurally. This work seemed to ramble, and not in a good way. The liner notes sate that the first movement “uses sonata form in a typically inventive way,” but to my ears it was music that never really developed or went anywhere. Sadly, the same was true of the second and third movements, the latter of which is a nearly 16-minute Chaconne.

By contrast, the Third Quartet is one of Britten’s finest works. Composed in 1975, very near the end of his life, the music seems to build on the moods of the First Quartet and the experimental forms of the Second to produce a piece that is involving and fascinating from start to finish. Motion and form are as important, if not more so, than mood here, and the fully mature Britten has found the key to making the music work: alternating motion and mood, yet always keeping them tied together so that one never has the advantage of the other. Moreover, the continuity thus created never quite dissipates, even when Britten changes speed (and mood) from the “very fast” second movement to the “very calm” third. And here, the last (fifth) movement Passacaglia is well worked out, having both direction and interest.

Having finished their traversal of the quartets, Warner Classics chose to program the Divertimenti last. This is odd programming. As I mentioned earlier, the pieces are rather lightweight in both construction and content—certainly not bad music, but sounding rather like encore pieces when they should really have led off the series. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, the quartet plays them quite well, giving them as much of their just due as one could rightly expect.

A good set, then, although I’m still not convinced of the Second Quartet’s overall quality.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in D major, Op. 25 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Endellion String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; England 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in C major, Op. 36 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Endellion String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945; England 
Quartet for Strings no 3, Op. 94 by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Endellion String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; England 
Divertimenti (3) for String Quartet by Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Endellion String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; England 

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