BRITTEN: String Quartet No. 2, No. 3; PURCELL: Fantasias & Chaconne – Emerson String Quartet – Decca Gold

by | May 15, 2017 | Classical CD Reviews

Chaconnes and Fantasias = “Music of BRITTEN and PURCELL” – BRITTEN:  String Quartet No. 2 in C Major; String Quartet No. 3 in G Major; PURCELL:  Fantazias No. 6, 8, 10, and 11; Chacony in g minor – Emerson String Quartet – Decca Gold 26509, 73:42, (4/21/17) ****;

A meeting of England’s two most famous composers played brilliantly by the newly reconstituted Emerson String Quartet.

(Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer; violin/ Lawrence Dutton; viola/ Paul Watkins; cello)

England was the world leader in industry and science in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In terms of patronage and audience, too, the London music scene was the the envy of artists elsewhere. Thus, it was all the more puzzling that, for almost exactly two centuries, England produced few composers beyond middling status. The death of Purcell in 1695, became increasingly seen as an endpoint, ushering in an age of lead. The 20th century saw the emergence of fresh talent in Edward Elgar and William Walton, national musicians of real stature, who duly feted in turn. However, the cruel terms of Modernism demanded more than talent and cutting edge sensibility, something to challenge if not chastise bourgeois tastes. It was Benjamin Britten who satisfied on all counts and restored that which had been lost with Purcell: a distinctly British composer with a sharp and comprehensive vision, hip to the Zeitgeist and a consummate master of both public and private forms of music.

The small quantity of chamber music by Britten draws special notice for its high standards. The string quartets appear ever more frequently in public performance and are considered on par with those of Shostakovich and Bartok as paragons of Modernism. On this recording, we hear the last two of his three quartets. The opus 36 work originated in the wake of the great cataclysm of the WWII and was performed specifically on the 250 anniversary of the death of Purcell, on the 21st of November of 1945. A long Chacony with the characteristic dotted rhythmic pattern refers to his predecessor, yet there is nothing stylistically retrograde about the language of the quartet, bracingly modern and expressively emphatic. The last quartet comes from the composer’s final difficult years. It ranges from some of the sweetest passages, especially a number of delicate duos, to prickly scherzos. All manner of influences, the city of Venice where the last movement was composed, to the late works of Shostakovich and the dazzling pizzicato techniques of Bartok, are compressed into this magnificent work, which is a summation of the 20th century string quartet at the ¾ century mark.

This recording by the Emerson String Quartet joins the two Britten pieces to a performance of five works by Purcell written for viols in four parts. The Chacony and the Fantasias are divided up and placed before each of the Britten works, allowing us a calm reflection on the art of part writing from the last great moment of English polyphony. If your ears are accustomed to the rougher sound of the viol family, it will take a while to acclimatize to the more even tone of the modern instruments. The cello of new member Paul Watkins stands out for its ability to summon something of Purcell’s magnificent melancholy. These are among the best known of Purcell’s consort works and endure as small masterpieces.

The String Quartet No. 2 in C major is major work of the literature and immediately allows this four headed race-horse to turn the track with all its thews and sinews rippling in the sunlight. The Emerson has tried to stay true to their patented attack in its ensemble playing, which sometimes feels like it adds velocity. But tempos are exactly indicated here, and the impression derives from their feel for  phrasing and their alertness to every nuance of the musical language. The Chacony: Sostenuto, which comprise the last 16 minute movement, has an obsessive quality that scarcely accords with the spirit of Purcell to whom the piece specifically refers. In the end, I am not persuaded of what violinist Eugene Drucker calls the “close affinity between the(se) composers.” I will leave the listeners to discover it if they can make the connection. However, I am confident that these performances will not disappoint.

Two fantasias allow us some repose before Purcell’s next quartet. Intricate weaves of imitation alternate with aching, downward tilting melodies. Finally we arrive at the String Quartet No. 3. Claims of affinity to Purcell would seem even more unreasonable here. Rather, the spirit of Shostakovich broods over the eerie first movement. The Ostinato. Very Fast gives the ensemble permission to show the famous “edge.” Technical dazzle asserts itself and then recedes to brooding whispers as it segues into a not-at-all-funny Burlesque. Fast – con fuoco. There are challenges at this point; this piece has never enjoyed the popularity of the Britten’s first two quartets. The final Recitative brings back the Russian feel with an energetic Passacaglia and a lurching dance. The final La Serenissima: Slow seems self-consciously valedictory and the tautness of the playing only just saves it from enervation. By now we are quite assured that the newly-reconstituted ensemble has lost nothing in the way of cogency and technical address.

Withal a very fine recital. The liner notes might have aspired to more. Competent yet minimal, they seem rather perfunctory given the fascinating historical context of the two big Britten pieces and their complex intellectual and cultural moorings. The claim of a connection between the composers, too, might have been elucidated for the skeptical reader as well, rather than merely asserted. The sound, however, is excellent. Altogether a first-rate recording.


Fantazia No. 6
Fantasia No 8

String Quartet No. 2 in E Minor, Op 36

Fantazia No. 10
Fantasia No. 11

String Quartet No. 3 in G Major, op. 94

—Fritz Balwit

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