Amadeus Quartet, Vol. 4, Modernism = Quartets of BRITTEN, TIPPETT, PURCELL, SEIBER & BARTOK – Audite (2 CDs)

Amadeus Quartet, Vol. 4, Modernism = BRITTEN: String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36; TIPPETT: String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp Minor; PURCELL: Chacony in G Minor; Fantasia No. 4; Fantasia No. 6; SEIBER: String Quartet No. 3 “Quartetto lirico”; BARTOK: String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 6 – Amadeus Quartet – Audite 21.429 (2 CDs), 61:52, 77:16 (5/12/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Volume 4 of the RIAS Amadeus Quartet Edition – from Berlin 1950-1956 – substantially increases its recorded legacy, which now embraces its musical contemporaries.  Prompts to follow this path came from fellow musicians and colleagues at London’s Morley College. Under the direction of Michael Tippett, a group of young composers, including Matyas Seiber and Peter Racine Fricker, wrote their new string quartets for the Amadeus Quartet. Apart from Michael Tippett, it was first and foremost Benjamin Britten who, around 1950, established his reputation as Britain’s most renowned composer. His Second String Quartet was conceived as a reminiscence of Henry Purcell, a progenitor of English music, for the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of his death. Two of Purcell’s string fantasias and a chaconne, on which Britten had based his work, complement this edition, released for the first time.

The Hungarian composer Matyas Seiber (1905-1960) – who, like the members of the Amadeus Quartet, had to emigrate to Britain after the Nazis had seized power in Germany – wrote his three-movement Quartetto lirico (1948-1951) in the spirit of the Viennese School, particularly that of Alban Berg and his Lyric Suite. Seiber also championed the string quartets of his fellow countryman Bela Bartok, whose Fourth and Sixth Quartets appear in Amadeus Quartet performances from 1955-1956.

Seiber joked that the basically tonal syntax of his Allegretto scherzando e leggiero second movement refers to Mendelssohn, but the last movement’s “desolate” indication aligns it more with Bartok’s somber “mesto” movements. The violin opening of the Andante amabile echoes the corresponding movement of Berg’s Op. 3 Quartet. The dominance of pizzicato and short, jerky rhythmic cells defines the Scherzando, which suddenly breaks off into a series of eerie effects, a kind of “twilight zone” affect reminiscent of Bartok and Weill. Cellist Martin Lovett becomes involved in riffs with violin counterparts Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel. Plucked and buzzing strings end the movement, whose sonority evaporates in a kind of squeak. Lovett establishes a bass pedal for the last movement, Lento espessivo, which achieves a degree of songful, if melancholy, lyricism. The performance (9 May 1955) has been conscientious, intense, and sonorously engaging.

To provide some context, the three pieces by Henry Purcell (10 August 1954) establish a direct link to Benjamin Britten, who in his Second Quartet (1945) labeled the expansive third movement Chacony in sympathy with Purcell, whose music Britten had been studying extensively for the composer’s two hundred fiftieth anniversary of his death – 21 November 1945. The hub of the Amadeus’ work, at Morley College, had them programming Purcell – “unstylistically,” with much vibrato from first violin Norbert Brainin, to which Imogen Holst objected – also with editorial guidance from Michael Tippett. Purcell’s vocal polyphony allows various musical realizations by instrumental ensembles and consorts. The passing dissonances in the Chacony in G Minor and the subsequent, four-part fantasias do not intrude on the fluid motion of the leading voices.

The Britten C Major Quartet (12 November 1956) has the Amadeus indulging in spatial relations, given the leap of a tenth from the tonic C to a major third an octave above. Propulsive and stretto figures collide and compete in the course of the development, sometimes tinted by a delicate polyphony. The manic Vivace movement owes debts to Shostakovich, whom Britten admired. A masterly sense of sonority prevails, given Britten’s comfort with stringed instruments. The Trio has violin Brainin in gaudy double-stops over a “serenade,” ghostly accompaniment. Britten’s extended notion of Chacony: Sostenuto creates twenty-one variants organized into four sets that serve as rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, and contrapuntal elaborations on the original motive. Solo virtuoso cadenzas from all but the second violin interrupt. The form-within-a-form may take its cue from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. With the use of twenty-one repetitions of a C Major chord, the drone effect against the original ground becomes severe and intense, the slashing lines of the coda formidable, indeed.

Michael Tippett’s genial 1942-1943 Second Quartet (8 June 1950) reveals debts to both Stravinsky and Hindemith in neo-Classic lines. The first movement, Allegro grazioso, often proceeds in the manner of an instrumental madrigal. The piece begins in the tonic minor, progressing to the designated major, although the piece “betrays” a freedom of harmonic movement favored by atonalists. The Andante presents a slow fugue, influenced by Bach and Purcell, at once. Norman Brainin’s feverish violin plays against an equally ardent cello. The “lithe and dancing” character of the last two movements likely reflects Tippett’s admiration for Beethoven.

The two late Bartok Quartets, No. 4 (1928) and No. 6 (1939), present the array of deep contradictions in the composer’s character, ranging from a high level of Classical architecture mixed with an existential anguish, grotesquerie, and often intricate serenity. The portent Magyar elements in Bartok are not lost uon the Amadeus players. The Non troppo lento of the Fourth Quartet (8 May 1955) presents a wringing cello line from Martin Lovett against atmospheric angst in the supporting strings. The subsequent Allegretto pizzicato proves as virtuosic as any good reading of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The series of mesto movements of the Sixth Quartet (12 November 1956) testify to the composer’s longing for a homeland to which he would not return.  The fourth movement Burletta, connected immediately to the final Mesto, as presented by the committed playing from the Amadeus Quartet, leaves us with a valediction akin to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth Symphony.

—Gary Lemco

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