String Quartet No.2 in C major, Op.36 (September – 14 October 1945, Britten aged 31)
1 Allegro calmo, senza rigore
3 Chacony: sostenuto
Dedication Mrs J.L. Behrend, a patron of the arts
Audio clips using the forthcoming recording from the Takács String Quartet on Hyperion, due for release in November.
1 Allegro calmo, senza rigore
3 Chacony: sostenuto
In addition you can hear a complete performance by the Zorian Quartet, who gave the work its first performance, by clicking on the year 1945 over at the Wigmore Hall website’s Britten timeline.
Background and Critical Reception
1945 was Britten’s ‘Purcell year’. It was the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, and Britten programmed two midweek concerts at the Wigmore Hall in his honour, marking both the anniversary day itself and Britten’s 32nd birthday, a day later.
In a concerted effort to boost Purcell’s profile Britten had already been writing a number of realizations for voice and piano, which he and Pears were using to begin their recitals together, but now he had a pair of new works, one for each concert. The first, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, was given its first performance on the second night, while the String Quartet no.2 was premiered on Britten’s birthday by the Zorian String Quartet. This was perhaps a significant choice, for in a rare aside he confessed to the work’s dedicatee Mary Behrend he said he felt the work to be the ‘greatest advance’ he had yet made.
The quartet, like the Sonnets, is dedicated to Purcell’s memory, and its finale is a massive passacaglia (titled Chacony as Purcell would have done). This is the emotional hub of the piece, longer than the first two movements put together, and it contains 21 variations on the same ground bass, divided by a series of solo cadenzas for cello, viola (with violin accompaniment) and violin alone. It then concludes with no fewer than 23 C major chords, which in John Bridcut’s words ‘reassert the quartet’s home key against all comers’.
Michael Kennedy is in no doubt about Britten’s achievement, calling the quartet ‘a most original and beautiful composition, one of the compositions of the century’.
The key of C major is often regarded as Britten’s ‘home’ key, or his ‘safe’ key. It dominates this quartet almost relentlessly, so it is a considerable achievement for Britten to get such variation and dramatic thrust over the course of a half-hour work that stays so firmly rooted in that area. Each movement is cast in the tonality, although the second, a fretful piece that shares its spirit with Batter my heart from The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, moves into the minor key, spending a nervy three-and-a-half minutes unable to settle, like a disturbed moth.
The first movement is rather more serene, its unusual melodic intervals evoking a land much further east than the North Sea, as if Britten is recalling his sessions on the music of Bali with Colin McPhee in New York. This is done through three themes of similar profile but cleverly individual arguments, before eventually the music slips from the reverie into a series of cohesive arguments.
The finale, though, is a tour de force. The powerful theme sounds like an introduction to a massive Shostakovich wartime symphony (it shares the key with his recent no.7, the Leningrad, completed five years earlier). Gradually Britten releases the aggression and the music settles, becoming more florid as the counterpoint unfolds, but not really Purcellian.
The cadenzas are striking, the one for cello in particular giving a pointer of what Britten would achieve for that instrument in the Cello Suites, but as the music threatens to leave C major behind for the first time Britten pulls it firmly back, driving home his point with a series of massive, quasi-orchestral chords. This makes a wonderful concert ending as well as a uniquely powerful statement, Britten perhaps recognising Purcell as the purest composer of all with the ultimate statement of musical purity, a C major triad.
That may be a somewhat deep notion, but the concert goer new to Britten’s music will at the very least witness the hypnotic and lasting power of this piece. Like the first quartet it speaks to me of the Suffolk coast, in a way that is almost too elusive to grasp, but it also brings through what Britten has gained from Purcell and Peter Grimes, as well as the mental scars acquired from his recent visit to Belsen, visible in some of the quieter and more painful outpourings towards the end of the third movement.
This is a piece that keeps on giving, rewarding close study of its form, its textures and its keen emotional statements.
Amadeus String Quartet (Testament)
Amadeus String Quartet (Decca)
Endellion String Quartet (EMI)
Belcea String Quartet (EMI)
Maggini String Quartet (Naxos)
Sorrel String Quartet (Chandos)
The Amadeus Quartet can be seen in a compelling account on a Testament DVD. This is a recording made just a year after Britten’s death, the performance given as part of the Autumn Chamber Music Festival, held at Snape Maltings. This first year of the festival was dedicated to Schubert, with Britten as the second composer, and was sanctioned by him. It began on 27 September 1977 and included the String Quartet no.2, placed second.
The camera angles are sympathetic and the picture very well restored by Testament. In particular Martin Lovett’s cello cadenza is a model of concentration and musical expression, while the sweeping final chords seemingly effortless but hugely expansive. The DVD includes the rest of the concert, a feathery Schubert Quartettsatz and a joyous Trout Quintet.
The Amadeus audio recording for Decca, also approved by the composer, brings the purity of their Haydn interpretations to what was then modern music, the voicing beautifully detailed in the first movement.
More recent digital versions are very competitive, too. The Belcea Quartet are especially powerful in the last movement, their ensemble rock solid, while the versions from the Endellion, Sorrel and Maggini Quartets are extremely good if not quite as emotionally electric. None of the versions leave this wonderful music short!
The Belcea and Maggini Quartet recordings are collected as a playlist for the Second String Quartet, which also includes recordings made by the Britten Quartet (Collins), the Emperor Quartet (BIS) and the Brodsky Quartet (Challenge Classics).
Also written in 1945: Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
Next up: Birthday Song for Erwin