Looking back now, more than 40 years after the death of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), it seems more certain than ever that this great musician was one of the leading composers, not only of his own time, but of any time. The message of Britten’s War Requiem, one of his most frequently performed works, will surely resonate down the years with audiences saddened by the last war and fearful of a next. Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are staples of opera houses everywhere around the world. Among all the great composers, Britten was second to none in being able to perfectly marry words to music.
This new recording by the Emerson explores a side of Britten that is often overlooked: his admiration for Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and how that admiration was expressed in his music. Britten made ‘realizations’ or modern performing editions of numerous Purcell works, including Dido and Aeneas, The Fairy Queen, and the Chacony for strings included on this new CD. He also composed his own Chacony as the last movement of his String Quartet No. 2, a Chacony that also turns up in his Suite No. 2 for cello, as well as in several of his other compositions. A chacony or chaconne is a set of variations, repeated over and over, on a ground bass. A close relative of the chacony is the passacaglia in which the variations are based on a chord sequence rather than on a repeated bass line. Britten was also fond of the passacaglia as evidenced by his String Quartet No. 3, Peter Grimes, the Suite No. 3 for cello and a number of other works.
The Emerson String Quartet plays the Purcell pieces on this CD with at least a nod to period performance practice; yes, vibrato is used sparingly, but one misses the sound of the period instruments. Furthermore, these are not really string quartet pieces — Haydn created the genre about 40 years after the death of Purcell – but they are thoughtful and appropriate companion pieces for the Britten quartets.
The String Quartet No. 2 (1945) demonstrates that at 32, Britten had already mastered the art of writing for strings. Not nearly as radical as his Hungarian contemporary Béla Bartók, his String Quartet No. 2 nevertheless has a striking originality. Much of his music is lyrical and accessible but beneath that approachable exterior lies music of remarkable complexity. That is certainly the case with Quartet No. 2. A distinctive feature of the last movement is a sequence of cadenzas for cello, viola, and violin. The Emerson musicians play with their usual impeccable intonation and beauty of sound and bring special artistry to the cadenzas.
String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1975 when Britten was in the throes of the heart illness that ultimately ended his life. It is autumnal music in some ways, particularly in its borrowings from the composer’s last opera, Death in Venice, which is based on a Thomas Mann novella of the same title, and concerns a dying man’s infatuation with a beautiful young boy he sees on the beach in Venice. Britten himself was gay; in the opera and in the quartet he found ways to express some of his most personal feelings. In his later years, Britten came to know some of the greatest Russian artists, among them Rostropovich and Richter. He also met and admired Shostakovich, and the feeling was mutual. In this last quartet, there are strong echoes of the Shostakovich string quartets, surely a gesture of homage to his friend who died August 9, 1975, while Britten was working on this piece. Once again, the Emerson String Quartet gives a performance superb in every respect.
The Emerson String Quartet was founded in 1976 and even with personnel changes – most recently (2013) cellist Paul Watkins replaced David Finckel — it remains the gold standard for string quartets. The quartet has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon for many years, but this new release appears on one of Universal Music Classics other house labels, appropriately, Decca Gold.
[Correction: May 17, 2017. A previous version incorrectly stated cellist Paul Watkins’ name.]