BRITTEN: String Quartets No. 3 / Simple Symphony (Maggini Quartet) (Naxos: 8.554360)
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String Quartets Vol. 2
What's in a name? Is it just piquant coincidence that one of Britain'sgreatest composers was called - Britten? Benjamin Britten's beloved mothercertainly saw significance in her married surname: extolling the 'three Bs' -Bach, Beethoven and Brahms - she was 'determined' the fourth would be Britten.
Benjamin was her fourth child, born, auspiciously, on November 22nd: StCecilia's Day, feast day of the patron saint of music.
The future composer's childhood home faced the North Sea in Lowestoft,the most easterly town in Britain. Britten loved his native Suffolk, feeling'firmly rooted in this glorious county'; he could have added the words offisherman Peter Grimes in his most famous opera '...by familiar fields, marshand sand, ordinary streets, prevailing wind'. What drew Britten and his loverand muse, the tenor Peter Pears, back from their new life in America in theearly 1940s? Britten's rediscovery of the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, whose The
Borough inspired Peter Grimes. Where did Britten and Pearssettle? That very 'Borough', Aldeburgh, another Suffolk coastal town which,thanks to Britten, has been home since 1948 to one of Britain's finest musicfestivals. He found 'working becomes more and more difficult away from thathome'.
A quintessentially English, provincial composer, then? Far from it.
After Britten's death The Times acclaimed him 'the first Britishcomposer to capture and hold the attention of musicians and their audiences theworld over'. Britten's technical brilliance and openness to continental trendsdistinguished him from the start. In the 1920s the precocious 13-year-old -pianist, viola-player and already prolific composer (shades of Mozart) - wasfortunate to find a composition teacher in Frank Bridge, virtually the onlyBritish composer with a sympathy for the central European avant-garde ofSchoenberg, Berg and Bartok, or neo-classical Stravinsky. To those modelsBritten added Mahler and Shostakovich. No wonder the conservative Royal Collegeof Music, which he attended from 1930, suffered culture shock, especially whenBritten proposed to use a travel grant to study with Berg. (He didn't.)
The mainstay of Britten's international appeal is the stream of operaticmasterpieces initiated by Peter Grimes in 1945; but they, and his otherPears-inspired vocal music, mask further important creative strands: pieces foryoung people and instrumental music. True, for a decade in mid-career Brittenwrote practically nothing substantial without voices; but before Grimes hischamber and orchestral compositions outnumbered vocal works two to one (thestring quartet playing a central role); and after 1960 musical friendships -above all with the cellist Rostropovich - revitalised that interest.
Indeed, the string quartets on this CD span fifty years. The ThirdQuartet (1975) was Britten's last major work, premi?¿red after his death,while the Simple Symphony includes tunes he wrote in 1923 - aged nine!As he turned twenty, Britten filched themes from his earliest pieces to developinto this buoyant 'Symphony' for string quartet or string orchestra. Itsorchestral version (recorded on Naxos 8.550979) is more often heard, but aquartet adds brio in Boisterous Bourree, sheer fun in PlayfulPizzicato and Frolicsome Finale, and surprising depth of feeling in SentimentalSaraband - suggesting a less-acknowledged influence: Elgar.
If the Symphony's simplicity lies in its youthful musicallanguage, by his last year at school Britten was following Bridge in daring newdirections. The Quartettino of 1930 is an astonishing achievement for asixteen-year-old. The restless, chromatic lines of its three movements, allevolving from a five-note rising-falling shape which prefaces the score, are asradical as anything in British music at the time - Britten at ease among hiscentral European examples.
(1933 - though unpublished, like the Quartettino,until the 1980s) brings another stylistic leap, but sounds eerily familiar:accompanying the voice in the wild penultimate Parade of Britten's 1939song-cycle Les Illuminations (recorded on Naxos 8.553834) is an expandedversion of Alla Marcia. This sinister Mahlerian march was originallyintended for a quartet which became the three Divertimenti, recorded bythe Maggini Quartet on their companion CD, Naxos 8.553883.
The very mastery of his Second Quartet (1945, following PeterGrimes, and also on that companion CD) may have contributed to Britten'ssubsequent thirty-year silence in the medium. Increasingly gnawed as he was byself-doubt, the string quartet - by reputation the pinnacle of abstract music -must have seemed daunting. Ironically, the sheer physical difficulty ofcomposing, after a heart operation in 1973 caused partial paralysis of hisright hand, apparently influenced Britten's final return to the quartet: onlyfour parts to write! But the Third Quartet's spare textures - reflectedin its titles, Duets (exploring all six possible pairings of the fourinstruments) and Solo (spotlighting the first violin) - arecharacteristic, indeed a summation, of Britten's late style. The arch-likefive-movement form recalls Bartok, Shostakovich, even Beethoven; Britteninvokes his friend Shostakovich, who had just died, in Ostinato (builton four notes spanning almost three octaves), Solo and especially theweird Burlesque - a title from two other valedictory works, Mahler's NinthSymphony and Bartok's Sixth Quartet, as well as Britten's ownforty-year-old Divertimenti. La serenissima (Venice) was written there; Recitativequotes Britten's last opera Death in Venice, while his last Passacaglia(a favourite form, unfolding over a repeated bass) ends, he said, 'with aquestion' - consonance undermined and outlived by an enigmatic cello note:suggesting, to Britten's chosen biographer Donald Mitchell, 'I'm not dead yet!'