Wigmore Hall, London, 7 March 2016
written by Ben Hogwood
Audio (open in a new window)
Available until 6 April
What’s the music?
Haydn – String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op.50/4 (1787) (20 minutes)
Britten – String Quartet no.3, Op.94 (1975) (27 minutes)
The Brentano String Quartet have not yet recorded this music, but other versions can be accessed via the playlist below, in case you can’t get to the broadcast:
About the music
Haydn wrote nearly 70 string quartets, but he was one of those composers incapable of writing the same thing twice. He also had a bit of a penchant for exploring relatively rare keys, and so this quartet, the only one he wrote in F sharp minor, occupies a special place.
It was part of a present for King Frederick William II of Prussia, to whom he had already sent his ‘Paris’ symphonies (nos.82-87) – receiving a ring in return. Haydn decided to send six string quartets, known as the ‘Prussian’ quartets – which continue to show his development as a composer in this relatively new form. The F sharp minor example is not as dark as some of the works in this key, though it does have some idiosyncratic moments described below.
Britten’s third numbered string quartet – his fifth and last to be published in the medium – is a direct product of the composer’s ailing health in 1975. With his capacity for work dwindling but not unbowed, it was suggested to him – in all seriousness by his friend Hans Keller – that if he wrote for less staves on the manuscript score he would be able to write more music.
He therefore completed a dedication for his friend, but as Keller recounts in his recent book, Britten: Essays, Letters and Opera Guides, the thought had been in his mind for some while. After a protracted discussion on form and sonata structure, Britten said to his friend, ‘One day, I’ll write a string quartet for you’. What he completed is something of a Divertimento – a wide ranging term that can apply from a short multi-movement piece to something as substantial as Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio, K563. The implication is that Britten wanted the freedom the form gave him.
With the Amadeus Quartet already enthusiastic exponents of his work, Britten took up the challenge with the help of the group and his assistant, composer Colin Matthews, who helped write much of the music from the piano. Although the Amadeus and Britten ran through the piece in private, he did not live to hear the public’s thoughts on the piece, for the premiere took place just over two weeks after his death.
The last movement of the quartet was written in its entirety in Venice, where Britten was still well enough to go on holiday, and perhaps inevitably it takes its lead from Death in Venice for its musical material. These are thought to be a present in musical form for Peter Pears. The final chord was a matter of some conjecture, and Britten changed it – for in the words of Colin Matthews, he wanted the work to ‘end on a question’.
For more thoughts on Britten’s last full work, visit the Good Morning Britten blog entry
The Brentano Quartet were notable for their accuracy of tuning and ensemble in this concert but at times some of the raw emotional elements of the music were not necessarily close at hand.
The Haydn was extremely well played but did not have a freshness or spontaneity of the best Haydn performances. It was however impressive for the way they found the inherent darkness in the music, especially the finale, which had a grim determination. The slow theme and variations that make up the second movement could perhaps have enjoyed more variety between each one.
The Britten reached further emotionally, and the beautifully played last movement was a fitting finale. The Brentano were also very effective in the two faster movements, finding the right level of aggression. The rippling textures of the outer movements were beautiful too, recognising the very unusual colours Britten achieves in this music. Britten’s quartets travel internationally now – they were very much confined to this country for a while – and it is intriguing to hear them played from afar. This performance did the Third Quartet justice.
What should I listen out for?
1:21 – the first four notes are key in the first movement of this quartet, for they form the basis of everything that follows – a bit like the repeated note motif in Beethoven’s Symphony no.5 but in a very different mood. Here the outlook is quite sombre, though the violin is positive. The first section is repeated (2:55), then at 4:25 the four note theme moves into development mode, before Haydn brings it back in original form at 5:37. Then he shifts the key to F sharp major at 6:22, and there is a notable upturn in mood.
7:31 – after the relative strife of the first movement the second begins in a pure and rather lovely form. A simple theme is presented before Haydn subjects it to several variations, but the peace doesn’t last and things take a darker turn at 9:30, the cello moving into its lowest register. At 10:55 the sunshine returns but is still affected by the music prior to it, and sure enough the minor key returns (12:34) – before Haydn moves once again to the major key for the next variation (13:16). The movement ends in a sudden full stop.
15:14 – the third movement, as is tradition, is a Minuet – but this one is a bit different as Haydn sets it in F sharp major, the most difficult of all keys for string players. It has a strange air about it, and some sudden loud bits do not help the mood of anxiety. At 16:45 a trio section starts, slipping into the minor key and feeling more vulnerable as a result. The Minuet music returns at 18:06, but doesn’t fully ease the tension.
19:10 – the mood of the quartet gets even darker for its finale, an austere fugue – which is where each part comes in at regular intervals playing slightly altered versions of the same tune. It makes a busy sounding texture, which Haydn works ingeniously until a sudden end, the finale only two minutes long.
23:54 – immediately in this work there is a sense of otherworldly mystery. In the third quartet Britten picks up where Death in Venice left off, the first violin using the same conversational style that Britten assigned to Aschenbach,(e.g. 25:14) the other instruments painting pictures of the undulating waters of the city’s canals. There is an intense period of contemplation that runs through this movement, subtitled Duets – because Britten tends to divide the quartet equally as the music unfolds
30:34 – the second movement (Ostinato) arrives with a jolt, and though its statements often end on a chord built on C – one of Britten’s favourite tonalities – it often sounds dissonant and unfeeling. There is a central section where brief respite is found, but it does not last long.
33:56 – when the violin takes the lead in this movement, marked Solo, it does so as a leader in prayer and meditation, and the other three instruments stand considerately in the sidelines. As the movement closes Britten reaches a radiant calm.
38:40 – either side of this moving section are two gruff, defiant scherzos, Britten writing closer to the style of Shostakovich but seeming also to shake his fist at the approach of Death. This second scherzo emphatically bursts the bubble created by the violin in the middle movement.
41:09 – the final movement – subtitled Recitative and Passacaglia – has perhaps the strongest sense of inevitability in late Britten. It begins with thoughts from the solo instruments, using the conversational style of the first movement. Then the Passacaglia takes hold (44:05). It is both sure footed and sublime, every repetition of the gently rising phrase feeling like a slow but sure step towards another world. That it ends on a question is something of a masterstroke, for after the serenity of the E major chord is realised in harmonics (50:33), Britten still has questions in his life and beliefs that remain unanswered. Ending on the ambiguous chord speaks volumes.
53:03 – a difficult call to make, doing an encore – but the Brentano chose nicely, opting for the first fugue from J.S.Bach’s The Art of Fugue (3 minutes). This is also reproduced on the Spotify playlist.
Where to go after Britten’s final thoughts? It’s a very tricky question to answer, so how about some late or final thoughts from other composers? Included at the bottom of the playlist are Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no.32, Schubert’s last String Quartet and the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony no.10: