Britten: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; Three Divertimenti

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; Three Divertimenti
PERFORMER: Maggini String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553883
Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 (1941) was written during his brief stay in America, winning the Coolidge Medal for ‘eminent services to chamber music’. And rightly so, for this somewhat neglected work is both eloquent and imaginative in its treatment of the medium. The opening movement, with its extraordinary sound-world and strong contrasts, reveals a composer of the highest rank.

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The Maggini Quartet plays with great assurance, and its eloquence in the extensive slow movement makes the brief final Vivace all the more exciting. The Naxos recording is nicely balanced, although less clear and detailed than the sound Chandos provides for the Sorrel Quartet (coupling Quartets Nos 1 & 3), whose performance is even more vivid as a result.

Britten’s quartets have been well served by recordings, but curiously the Maggini Quartet’s coupling of Nos 1 and 2 is unique. Like the Maggini, the Sorrel offers the early Divertimenti (1936); these attractive miniatures bring out the best from both sets of players.

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The Quartet No. 2 (1945) was inspired by the 250th anniversary of the death of Purcell. The opening movement, one of Britten’s few sonata structures, is performed with much confidence by the Maggini players, while the central scherzo is suitably spectral. But it is the final Chacony, the longest movement, which makes the strongest impression. The new recording conveys its structural strength and expressive subtlety, but is less dramatic than the Britten Quartet’s performance on Collins (coupled with Quartet No. 3). However, at bargain price the Maggini disc offers excellent value for money. Terry Barfoot