Listening to Britten – Quartettino for string quartet


(c) Brian Hogwood

Quartettino (3 January – 17 April 1930, Britten aged 16)

1 Andante
2 Poco adagio ma con moto
3 Allegro molto vivace

Dedication not known
Duration 17′

Background and Critical Reception

Paul Kildea goes to some length to observe that ‘not even the Rhapsody for String Quartet skates so close to the Continental modernism of Quartettino. Key signatures have been ditched in favour of a five-note row, which Britten spells out under the title as though it were a crossword clue, and then sets to work on it with great fire and skill. Every detail in the score is specified – a battery of harmonics, portamenti, chromatic acrobatics, dance gestures and skittish tonality’.

Purple prose indeed. He then goes on to note the absence of any writing on the score from Frank Bridge, unusual for a work of the period, and speculates that Britten did not want to show his teacher because he had in effect borrowed his almost atonal ways of working, but had taken them even further. Despite forming part of Britten’s application portfolio for the Royal College of Music, the work was not published until 1983.

Thoughts

The Quartettino is another remarkable piece for a sixteen-year old composer to be writing, even taking in to account Britten’s interest in Schoenberg at the time. Having heard Frank Bridge’s String Quartet no.3, it’s difficult to imagine this piece existing without the influence of the teacher’s work, but as Kildea notes this does indeed go the extra mile. It is uncomfortably intense at times, and the febrile violin line towards the end of the second movement plumbs deep emotional depths, capping as it does an intensely personal utterance.

It is interesting to note that once again Britten can’t resist giving the opening melody to ‘his’ instrument, the viola, before the first movement becomes more closely integrated. The brisk unison passage towards the end of this movement, and some of the rhythmic profiles, are reminiscent of Bridge, while the young composer flexes his muscles with all sorts of tricks of the stringed instrument trade – harmonics, muted passages, tremolos, pizzicato, feathery writing with the bow close to the bridge, or big unison chords – it all happens at a quick rate, particularly in the third movement, until the music pulls itself into a decisive unison finish.

Quartettino is a highly adventurous and precocious piece, bearing little to no resemblance with the String Quartet in F already heard. It’s as if Britten is seeing just how far he can push things!

Recordings used
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Maggini String Quartet (Naxos)

The Maggini’s speeds are generally slower, but given the concentration of the music this helps to define the melodic figures a bit more. That said, the Endellion go for greater dynamic variety. Both performances are of a high quality though.

Spotify
The Maggini‘s interpretation begins on the fifth track of this disc.

Also written in 1929: Webern – Quartet for tenor saxophone, violin, cello, and piano, op. 22

Next up: A Hymn to the Virgin

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