Takács Quartet – Benjamin Britten String Quartets 1-3 [Hyperion]

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String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.25
String Quartet No.2 in C, Op.36
String Quartet No.3, Op.94

Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola) & András Fejér (cello)]

Recorded 12-15 February 2013 in the Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: February 2014
Duration: 76 minutes



The Takács Quartet performed the three numbered String Quartets of Benjamin Britten at an early celebration of the centenary of his birth at the Wigmore Hall in December 2012. On that occasion it was clear that the musicians had spent considerable time with each piece, and a couple of months later they recorded their interpretations for Hyperion.

Each of the works belongs to a specific period in the composer’s life. The First was written during an intense bout of homesickness in America, soon after which he and Peter Pears decided to set a course for home, George Crabbe’s The Borough in hand, to unleash Peter Grimes. The Second formed the centrepiece of a two-day marking of the 250th-anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, held at Wigmore Hall in November 1945, while the Third is semi-autobiographical; written in the wake of Death in Venice (and in the city itself) it quotes from Britten’s final opera, the composer accepting his fate in the wake of an unsuccessful heart operation.

The beginning of the First Quartet strongly suggests the wind in the Suffolk reeds, a poignant picture composed from afar. The Takács members feel the soft breath of the enchanting three-part cluster from violins and viola, punctuated by pizzicatos from the cello. Countering this is more vigorous music, which eventually falls under the spell of this captivating passage. The musicians resist the temptation to go hell-for-leather in the finale, which can take on the form of a display piece but here retains poise and determination. So too does the quick-fire scherzo, its unison passages superbly played with strong rhythmic impetus. Only in the slow movement, Andante calmo, is there purely time for thought, and here the players appreciate the disquiet of the added-note chords to which the music is often subjected.

The Second Quartet is even better, an utterly convincing interpretation. The mysterious, chant-like theme with which the first movement begins also casts a spell, violin and cello inseparable. There is considerable nervous energy generated as the movement progresses, with a cut and thrust that is only heightened by the scherzo, its furtive figurations – superbly played – generate raw uneasiness. Yet the trepidation of this movement only heightens the expansive sweep of the finale, ‘Chacony’, Britten’s ultimate homage to Purcell. It is longer than the first two movements combined, and asserts itself powerfully in C major, despite a number of cadenzas that attempt to displace progress. The fantasia from András Fejér anticipates Britten’s writing for the cello in a solo capacity for Rostropovich, while the solos from Edward Dusinberre and Geraldine Walther are no less forceful. The final chords are emphatic, triumphant even, and brilliantly rendered.

The Third String Quartet is the most difficult to master, and while the Takács musicians are smoother and not always as forceful as the Amadeus Quartet (the original performers) in the ‘Ostinato’ or ‘Burlesque’ movements they are nonetheless very impressive. There is an inner strength to their reading, a gritty resolve of the type that kept Britten producing music right to the end. The ‘Solo’ movement, the third of the five, is an important pivotal point here, Dusinberre taking a relatively quick approach but playing with a beautiful, singing tone. The final movement is inevitably the emotional focus, one of Britten’s very finest passacaglias – the moment where he takes his leave, on an open-ended phrase, is deeply moving here.

There are a number of other works for string quartet whose publication Britten sanctioned – an early one in D, an even earlier example in F, the Three Divertimenti and a number of small pieces. It would be wonderful indeed if the Takács musicians could now turn their attention to them, for this very fine Hyperion release demonstrates their keen understanding of Britten’s music.

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