British composer Benjamin Britten [1913-1976] wrote three string quartets together with some student works, including three early divertimenti, for the medium. I must admit that I have never been drawn to Britten’s quartets but somebody suggested him in an email. My thanks to that person. I obtained a version by the Takacs Quartet which made me change my mind about this music. They bring such life and character to his work.
Britten’s First Quartet was written in 1941 and consists of four movements.
The piece opens with a violin gently trilling over a cello pizzicato background. This mood is sustained for longer than I would have expected and it is very elegant. Next comes a strong rhythmic passage with the violins playing spirited melodies. The rhythm ceases and we are left with two violins. Gradually the music works its way back to the opening violin and cello passage. Then the feeling changes with the cello coming to the fore while the violin trills. There is a dialogue between the cello and the violin before it moves into tempo again. A return to the opening mood moves the passage to an end which turns out to be one invocation of the earlier rhythmic passage.
The second movement is quite brief and is starts at a strutting tempo over an ostinato. The violins are playful until the cello begins to force the pace. This brings an intensity and a chaotic sound emerges. The ostinato returns and the violins resume their very busy roles. The atmosphere is occasionally interspersed with more chaos and it eventually fades to the end, which comes with a loud flourish.
The third movement, marked andante calmo, is the longest movement, and the most beautiful. The composer crafts an expansive opening at this slow tempo. A wonderful violin melody rises out of the music; this is some fine writing. Finally a stately loud chord ensues and the cello dialogues with the ensemble for a time. The cello retreats to an accompanying role for a moment and then completely breaks free for a sustained solo passage. The opening mood returns with the violin being prominent, but all the while bringing great peace. A strong bank of chords again brings out the cello until the violins lead to a faded conclusion. This is a truly wonderful movement!
The finale opens with a dance-like feeling. The whole ensemble is involved. Now the violin dialogues with the cello, all at a breakneck pace. A change in the feeling has a prominent cello featured with a skittish violin which evolves into another racing section. A brief rhythmic interlude leads to an abrupt, satisfying end.
Due to the Takacs, I am now sold on Britten. I also checked out on Spotify the Brodsky Quartet, who bring a similar spirit to the piece. Their andante calmo movement is just so precious; it’s reminiscent of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I spoiled myself and listened to it a few times; very moving.
Regarding availability, the Takacs have the three quartets on a single CD. The Brodskys include the three divertimenti, making it into a 2-CD set. Both sets can be found on Amazon US and UK, along with a host of other versions, some containing the student works. Not too many with the three string quartets on one CD, however.
There are also a vast number of versions of No. 1 and Britten’s other two quartets on youtube.
Listenability: A very charming and ultimately beautiful work.
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