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Benjamin Britten, String Quartets No. 1-3, Three Divertimenti, Belcea Quartet (released on May 10, 2005)
B. Britten, String Quartet No. 1, Three Divertimenti (with Tchaikovsky's first quartet), Brodsky Quartet (released on June 4, 2002)
B. Britten, String Quartets No. 2 and 3, Brodsky Quartet (released on August 5, 2003)
We have Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the great music patroness of the Library of Congress, to thank for the first Britten quartet (op. 25, D major). In 1941, she commissioned the composer while he was in exile in the United States, a request that he fulfilled in the short period of two months. It was only one of the many services that Mrs. Coolidge performed on behalf of contemporary chamber music. In this performance, its first movement has an otherworldly melting of the three upper strings over the tender pizzicati of the cello. The Allegro vivo section that balances the Andante sostenuto is dominated by the searing E-string playing of first violinist Corina Belcea, whose strong tone belies her thin, elegant frame. The brief second movement, a sort of scherzo marked Allegretto con slancio, pulses athletically in the Belcea Quartet's remarkably unified sense of ensemble. The quartet is dominated by the slow movement (Andante calmo), the longest one. It has some calm moments, but also some exciting full-bodied passages, which the Belcea Quartet makes loud but never shrill. It is the agitated half of this equation that wins out, with the Molto Vivace finale.
The second quartet (op. 36, C major) comes from only a few years later, in 1945, but it has a more historically informed plan, since it was a tribute to the music of Henry Purcell (it was premiered on the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death), an English composer whom Britten saw as his most important forebear. (He used a Purcell theme as the basis of his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra around the same time.) The first movement is thrice the length of the fast-moving, full-throated second movement, which roars down to a muted conclusion. What I found so moving in the Jupiter's live performance of this quartet was the exultant triumph of the crashing C major chords in the finale, as they overcome the serpentine, dissonant main theme, the melody of war, that dominates the piece. It is stated in a gorgeous unison at the opening of the vast final movement, twice again the length of the first movement, which here is a sustained unspiraling of the chaconne pattern with that thrill of those devastating C major chords at the end.
In the year before he died, Britten completed a third string quartet (op. 94), a piece that turns inward. Britten composed parts of it while in Venice -- the final movement is subtitled "La Serenissima," a name ascribed to that city by its residents -- the setting of his disturbing, beautiful, and quasi-autobiographical opera Death in Venice. Not long before he died, Britten helped the Amadeus Quartet rehearse the piece, which they premiered a couple weeks after he was dead. It is a collection of five rather different movements, capturing the moods of this great musician as he looked death in the face. This performance is a strong combination of somber introspection (as in the first movement, the metaphysical Duets and the ineffably sad, lonely middle movement, Solo, with the luscious work of Corina Belcea on first violin) and hysterical shriek (parts of the rapid Ostinato and the Shostakovich-like miniature Burlesque). Britten was working on the final movement during his final visit to his beloved Venice, and its second section is a passacaglia based on a theme supposedly derived from the ringing of the bells of La Serenissima. The Belceas have put down a luminous account of this movement, with its utterly unresolved conclusion.
The only reason to include the Three Divertimenti is to justify having a second disc for the third quartet. As revised juvenilia, they are not a good enough reason to buy this disc, and while I could probably do without them if I had to, they aren't bad. Certainly, by comparison to the Brodsky quartet disc, I would advise having all three of the Britten quartets, and here you can do so at the cost of a 2-CD set. You cannot go wrong with this technically polished, well-recorded, and emotionally grand performance.