About this Recording
8.554360 - BRITTEN: String Quartets No. 3 / Simple Symphony
English  German 

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
String Quartets Vol. 2

What's in a name? Is it just piquant coincidence that one of Britain's greatest composers was called – Britten? Benjamin Britten's beloved mother certainly 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: St Cecilia'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 of fisherman Peter Grimes in his most famous opera '...by familiar fields, marsh and sand, ordinary streets, prevailing wind'. What drew Britten and his lover and muse, the tenor Peter Pears, back from their new life in America in the early 1940s? Britten's rediscovery of the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, whose The Borough inspired Peter Grimes. Where did Britten and Pears settle? That very 'Borough', Aldeburgh, another Suffolk coastal town which, thanks to Britten, has been home since 1948 to one of Britain's finest music festivals. He found 'working becomes more and more difficult away from that home'.

A quintessentially English, provincial composer, then? Far from it. After Britten's death The Times acclaimed him 'the first British composer to capture and hold the attention of musicians and their audiences the world over'. Britten's technical brilliance and openness to continental trends distinguished him from the start. In the 1920s the precocious 13-year-old – pianist, viola-player and already prolific composer (shades of Mozart) – was fortunate to find a composition teacher in Frank Bridge, virtually the only British composer with a sympathy for the central European avant-garde of Schoenberg, Berg and Bartók, or neo-classical Stravinsky. To those models Britten added Mahler and Shostakovich. No wonder the conservative Royal College of Music, which he attended from 1930, suffered culture shock, especially when Britten proposed to use a travel grant to study with Berg. (He didn't.)

The mainstay of Britten's international appeal is the stream of operatic masterpieces initiated by Peter Grimes in 1945; but they, and his other Pears-inspired vocal music, mask further important creative strands: pieces for young people and instrumental music. True, for a decade in mid-career Britten wrote practically nothing substantial without voices; but before Grimes his chamber and orchestral compositions outnumbered vocal works two to one (the string 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 Third Quartet (1975) was Britten's last major work, premièred 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 develop into this buoyant 'Symphony' for string quartet or string orchestra. Its orchestral version (recorded on Naxos 8.550979) is more often heard, but a quartet adds brio in Boisterous Bourrée, sheer fun in Playful Pizzicato and Frolicsome Finale, and surprising depth of feeling in Sentimental Saraband – suggesting a less-acknowledged influence: Elgar.

If the Symphony's simplicity lies in its youthful musical language, by his last year at school Britten was following Bridge in daring new directions. The Quartettino of 1930 is an astonishing achievement for a sixteen-year-old. The restless, chromatic lines of its three movements, all evolving from a five-note rising-falling shape which prefaces the score, are as radical as anything in British music at the time – Britten at ease among his central 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 1939 song-cycle Les Illuminations (recorded on Naxos 8.553834) is an expanded version of Alla Marcia. This sinister Mahlerian march was originally intended for a quartet which became the three Divertimenti, recorded by the Maggini Quartet on their companion CD, Naxos 8.553883.

The very mastery of his Second Quartet (1945, following Peter Grimes, and also on that companion CD) may have contributed to Britten's subsequent thirty-year silence in the medium. Increasingly gnawed as he was by self-doubt, the string quartet – by reputation the pinnacle of abstract music – must have seemed daunting. Ironically, the sheer physical difficulty of composing, after a heart operation in 1973 caused partial paralysis of his right hand, apparently influenced Britten's final return to the quartet: only four parts to write! But the Third Quartet's spare textures – reflected in its titles, Duets (exploring all six possible pairings of the four instruments) and Solo (spotlighting the first violin) – are characteristic, indeed a summation, of Britten's late style. The arch-like five-movement form recalls Bartók, Shostakovich, even Beethoven; Britten invokes his friend Shostakovich, who had just died, in Ostinato (built on four notes spanning almost three octaves), Solo and especially the weird Burlesque – a title from two other valedictory works, Mahler's Ninth Symphony and Bartók's Sixth Quartet, as well as Britten's own forty-year-old Divertimenti. La serenissima (Venice) was written there; Recitative quotes Britten's last opera Death in Venice, while his last Passacaglia (a favourite form, unfolding over a repeated bass) ends, he said, 'with a question' – consonance undermined and outlived by an enigmatic cello note: suggesting, to Britten's chosen biographer Donald Mitchell, 'I'm not dead yet!’

David Gallagher


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