BRITTEN: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Three Divertimenti (Maggini Quartet) (Naxos: 8.553883)
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String Quartet No. 1in D major, Op. 25
String Quartet No. 2in C major, Op. 36
Three Divertimenti forString Quartet, 'Go play, boy, play!' (1936)
Benjamin Britten's compositions for string quartet include some of themost important examples of the genre in the twentieth century. They includefour quartets and three movements from an unfinished suite and reflect hisunderstanding of a medium of which he had experience as a performer.
Born in Lowestoft in 1913, Britten quickly outgrew local resources forguidance in composition and was sent for instruction in 1927 to Frank Bridgewho became both teacher and friend. In common with Bridge, Britten played theviola, and his works for string instruments are from the earliest attempts,entirely idiomatic, with a thorough understanding of all aspects of performingtechniques. His brother Robert was a violinist, and Britten's firstcompositions reflected these family abilities.
Frank Bridge was a fortunate choice of mentor - his harmonic leaningsfound sympathy with more contemporary European ideals, especially Berg, andthis cosmopolitan outlook, almost unique amongst British composers of the time,was quickly recognised by Britten's precocious talent. In contrast, whenBritten later attended the Royal College of Music, he found that hiscompositional style did not always find favour with the establishment. Hestudied with John Ireland, but kept in close contact with Bridge, andfrequently asked his advice. He said of these years "They don't seem veryhappy in retrospect. I feel I didn't learn very much".
The Three Divertimenti were composed in 1933, towards the end ofhis student life at the Royal College. The three movements originally belongedto an unfinished suite for quartet entitled Alla quartetto serioso 'Go play,boy, play', and were intended as a series of portraits of school friends;the first of the athletic David Lay ton from Gresham's, Holt, his publicschool, and the third of Francis Barton, a friend from South Lodge, his earlierprivate school. The movements bore the titles PT, At the Party and Raggingbut were withdrawn, revised and re-born in 1936 as Three Divertimenti. TheMarch is one of the earliest examples of Britten's use of this form - arecurring feature of his later works. The charming Waltz has an air ofcalm relaxation before the almost mota perpetua energy of the Burlesque.
They were first performed in this version by the Stratton Quartet (later tobecome the Aeolian Quartet) at the Wigmore Hall on 2Sth February 1936.
Britten first met the tenor Peter Pears in 1934, but it was in 1937,after the death of the latter's close friend Peter Burra, that a relationshipbegan that was to continue until Britten's death in 1976. As the uneasy decadeof the 1930's drew to a close, Britten and Pears made the decision to move toAmerica, largely under the influence of the poet W.H. Auden and the writerChristopher Isherwood, who had despaired of the old world with its conventionsand apparent sterility. When Frank Bridge saw Benjamin Britten and Peter Pearsset sail on the SS Ausonia on 29th April 1939 bound for Canada, it was to bethe last meeting of pupil and teacher. Bridge died in 1941, the year of the StringQuartet No. 1 in D Op. 25. An earlier string quartet in the same keywritten in 1931, was revised in 1974 and first performed in this revision atSnape. Both the first two numbered string quartets date from the years of theSecond World War. After his collaboration with W.H. Anden on the folk opera PaulBunyan, which received indifferent reviews, Britten and Pears passed thesummer of 1941 in California as guests of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. Itwas here that he was commissioned to write the String Quartet in D majorby the wealthy American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The quartet wasfirst performed by the Coolidge Quartet in Los Angeles on 21st September 1941.
During this Californian summer, Britten also discovered the work of the poetGeorge Crabbe (1755-1832). After reading a transcript of E.M. Forster'sbroadcast on Crabbe, Pears found a copy of his work in an antiquarian bookshopand, particularly impressed by The Borough, with its characters from thelife of his own native East Anglia, Britten resolved to write an opera aboutthe tormented fisherman, Peter Grimes. Althongh the composition of thesecond quartet is more nearly contemporary with Peter Grimes, there aredistinct similarities with the sound world of the Quartet in D. Theopening Andante sostenuto with its high tessitura and directed to beplayed molto vibrato has much of the feeling found in the DawnInterlude from Grimes and similarly the third movement Andante calmo in5/4 looks forward to the Moonlight Interlude. These two movements areseparated by the Scherzo, Allegretto con slancio, which, somewhat likethat of the Violin Concerto of 1939, is reminiscent of Shostakovitch. Afrothy and humorous finale, Molto vivace, concludes the work.
In July 1945, and at his own request, Britten made a tour of Germany asaccompanist to Yehudi Menuhin, who had undertaken to play to the survivors ofGerman concentration camps, including Belsen. Britten must have been affectedby this and it was on his return that he completed the String Quartet No.
2 in C major, Op. 36. This astonishing work was given its first performance bythe Zorian Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on 21st November, 1945. Together withthe settings of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne and The Young Person'sGuide to the Orchestra, it was written to commemorate the 250th anniversaryof the death of Henry Purcell. The two large-scale outer movements flank themalevolent Scherzo (Vivace). Played with mutes, the trio offersno respite, being thematically linked to the movement's primary theme. Thefirst movement, Allegro calmo senza rigore, is in sonata form, butstretches the exposition out to such a length as to dwarf the development,while the recapitulation is still shorter. The main three themes thatconstitute the first subject are characterised by a rising tenth. The final Chaconyis a ground followed by 21 variations, interspersed with cadenzas for thecello, viola and first violin - the second violin accompanies the viola cadenzaby sustaining a C throughout. It was in a filler for the recording of thequartet by the Zorian Quartet that Britten himself played second viola inPurcell's Fantasy upon One Note, the entire work being constructedaround a sustained C. The Chacony, in the very spelling of its title andin its form, is an overt tribute to Purcell. The first six variations are harmonicand the cello cadenza separates these from a further set of six whichare basically rhythmic. Then follows the viola cadenza and sixcontrapuntal variations. The cadenza for first violin heralds the finalthree variations and the movement ends with an almost Beethoven-likereaffirmation of the tonic tonality.