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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 25 [24:11]
String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op. 36 [26:53]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94 [24:49]
Takács Quartet
rec. Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, 12-15 February 2013
HYPERION CDA68004 [75:55]

Since they found a home with Hyperion the Takács Quartet have wasted no time in shoring up their already enviable reputation; their recording of the Schubert Quintet was loaded with accolades on all sides.
This well-timed release of Britten’s numbered quartets, recorded and released in the centenary year, will win them even more praise. There is a wonderful intimacy to both their playing and the recorded sound, but they’re not beyond making an unlovely sound when they need to. You hear that right at the opening of the First Quartet: the diatonic opening to the first movement sounds mysterious, but also oddly disconnected, as though it consisted of two strains of music that were refusing to listen to one another. The players then set about the main allegro section with arresting vigour and vitality. In fact, it was here, especially, that their playing reminded me of the muscularity and energy that they brought to their outstanding Beethoven interpretations. Their playing also reminds you that this was young man’s music, written to a commission when the 20-year old composer was in the USA taking refuge from the Second World War. The Allegretto second movement is played with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour, the players seeming to pose and answer questions from one another like a communal chat. There is then a hushed warmth to the opening of the slow movement, with an element of danger creeping into the repeated notes of the central section; but overall it’s an uncanny sense of communion that characterises the movement, whereas it’s skittish invention that characterises the finale.
The transparency of the playing lays open the harmonic inventiveness of the Second Quartet’s first movement. Again, though, there is an architectural vigour in the way they treat the themes, be it the spidery harmonics or the warm, chorale-like chords. The work builds, through the scherzo, to the climax of the third movement Chacony, which is perhaps the climax of the whole disc. The Takács unmistakeably grasp the scale of Britten’s structural genius here, and it is as if their playing takes on a greater scale to match it. They work their way through the kaleidoscopic range of variations with consummate skill and a great ear for detail, bringing out the vast range of differences over the essential unifying factor of the theme. There is richness, depth, eeriness and beauty. The cadenzas that separate each group of variations are played with incredible artistry, and the repeated C major chords that end the movement seem to radiate both affirmation and authority.
The Third Quartet comes from 1975, towards the very end of the composer’s life, after Death in Venice and Britten’s heart operation. The sound world is perceptibly different from the very start. The music seems to grope its way uncertainly into being, and Geraldine Walther’s viola sounds particularly fantastic here, providing what little anchoring the piece has at this point. When the more contrapuntal elements do emerge there is still an element of insecurity hanging over the music and the first movement comes to an end in predominant mood of uncertainty. The two scherzo movements are played with much more assertiveness, but that uncertain sense of searching permeates the central slow movement, too. Again, the Takács players seem to recapture that sense of disconnectedness that characterised the very opening of the disc, and for a few moments this also filters into the finale, permeated with its references to Death in Venice. When the main theme kicks in around the three-minute mark, though, the music seems gently to take on an uncanny combination of resignation and purposefulness. As the movement progresses this seems to flower into something profound, combining harmonic invention and melodic security with an unavoidable sense of finality. It’s difficult to shake off the fact that Britten was dying as he wrote this music, and he must have known that his illness would finally finish him - Colin Matthews acted as his amanuensis for much of the composition process, and Britten struggled even to sit through a private performance from the Amadeus Quartet in 1976. This sense of passing is underlined even further, perhaps unconsciously, by the way the final bar seems almost to break off in mid-sentence.
The all-important sense of ambiguity, present to a greater or lesser degree in all of this music - though perhaps especially in the Third’s finale - is conveyed with the utmost delicacy and discretion by the players, putting their interpretation towards the top of the league table for these works.
Anyone wanting to engage seriously with Britten’s quartets will need to do business with the Belcea Quartet, who also provide some of the youthful divertimenti, and the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos who provide still more in their two disc edition, but the Takács’ contribution to the Britten centenary is able to look those performers in the face.
Simon Thompson  

Britten discography & review index: String quartets