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Britten: String Quartets, Divertimenti / Belcea Quartet

Release Date: 05/10/2005 
Label:  Emi Classics   Catalog #: 57968   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Corina BelceaAlasdair TaitLaura SamuelKrzysztof Chorzelski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

I wonder how many good English string quartets have been written in American tool sheds? We may never know. Britten produced his op. 25 during the summer of 1941, while hiding at the bottom of the garden. The 27-year-old deliberately made things noisy for himself in the shed with an electric fan. He wanted to drown out the sound of piano-duet practice, which was drifting across from the home of his hosts. What he had in mind was an impossibly wide contrast as the basis for a sonata-form movement: immobile, high suspensions versus violent activity. There’s a faint whiff of the Schubert Quintet in that opening, but although this is the least-trumpeted of the three, the Britten First generates a confident drama of irreconcilable ecstasies that Read more was, and remains, unique in chamber music. The idiom, feeling, and the vision of improbable beauty label this work “masterpiece.” Britten didn’t repeat the openhearted, one-shot feeling of the First’s Andante in any subsequent opus. There’s an American warmth to the curve that recalls the Barber Adagio, and the young Belceas do well here, rather as they did in the comparably heartfelt slow movement of the Debussy Quartet, which they taped a while back for BBC Music Magazine. I prefer the Magginis on Naxos, and with the sincerest apologies to everyone, I’m going to remind anyone who can hear them that the greatest of all recordings of op. 25 was made for Decca by the Allegri Quartet in the Maltings, Snape, with the composer at hand. This performance has apparently disappeared forever from public view, like an embarrassing ex-dictator.

The Allegris made the best version of op. 36 too, in my opinion, better even than the Amadeus, but here the Belceas can stand up to anyone, searching and fantastical in the Allegro, scary in the Vivace, epic in the Chacony, with the correct, exaggerated dynamics in the theme, and a good climax. Best of the three is op. 94, for which the players let their expressive hair down, among the most hair-raising technical impossibilities of the Ostinato and Burlesque. At the very start of its life, I heard this work played by the Amadeus, live, in the wake of Britten’s death. I hope young quartets listen to tapes of those first performances, because no current account comes within an ocean’s breadth of their expressive power, not even the Amadeus in the studio for Decca. The Endellions, also on EMI, did come close to being better than anyone in these works, and taped most of the “extra” quartet pieces, too. Maybe someday, everything will always be available. Meantime, EMI offers these well-recorded, dedicated, and reliable accounts of the three canonical quartets plus a truly outstanding, spontaneous set of Divertimenti, on two discs for the price of one. The Magginis offer more music and a bit more feeling on a couple of Naxos discs. To get both of the pre-first Britten quartets, you’ll have to go to the more expensive Sorrels, who are impassioned in the “standard” three. The Belcea Quartet though, is unmatched in observance of Britten’s careful markings, in technical aplomb, and in the Divertimenti. So for a final choice, it’s back to the tool shed.

Paul Ingram, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in D major, Op. 25 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Corina Belcea (Violin), Alasdair Tait (Cello), Laura Samuel (Violin),
Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; England 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in C major, Op. 36 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Laura Samuel (Violin), Corina Belcea (Violin),
Alasdair Tait (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945; England 
Quartet for Strings no 3, Op. 94 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Laura Samuel (Violin), Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Corina Belcea (Violin),
Alasdair Tait (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; England 
Divertimenti (3) for String Quartet by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Laura Samuel (Violin), Krzysztof Chorzelski (Viola), Alasdair Tait (Cello),
Corina Belcea (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Belcea String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; England 

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