Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 2 in C major
Michael Tippett, String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp major
Henry Purcell, Chacony in G minor
Henry Purcell, Fantasia No. 4
Henry Purcell, Fantasia No. 6
Mátyás Seiber, String Quartet No. 3 (Quartetto Lirico)
Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 4
Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 6
Live recordings, Berlin 1950–1956
Audite 21.429 (2 CDs)
This two-CD set is a fascinating historical document with some very fine string playing indeed. The legendary Amadeus Quartet , whose four players played together for four decades from July 1947 to the death of violist Peter Schidlof in August 1987, are best known as custodians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century repertoire, providing touchstone performances of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and the other great classical and romantic quartet composers. As this collection of recordings reveals, they also had a deep empathy with the modernist repertoire.
The members of the Amadeus Quartet made a number of visits in the early years of the quartet to Morley College, an adult education college in London where Michael Tippett was the musical director until 1951. Mátyás Seiber taught composition at Morley College. Both composers are represented in the RIAS recordings, Tippett by his second quartet and Seiber by his third. The Tippett quartet is an attractive, lyrical piece, somewhat removed from the more avant garde directions of twentieth century music. Seiber’s third quartet is loosely serial in construction, but looking more to Berg than to Webern or Schoenberg. Neither quartet is frequently performed or recorded, but both are well worth listening to.
The other quartets in the set are much more firmly established in the repertoire. Britten’s second quartet is the only piece here that the Amadeus Quartet recorded commercially (for Decca in 1963). Its most striking feature is the magnificent third movement, which Britten entitled ‘Chacony’ (chaconne), in explicit reference and tribute to Henry Purcell, in whose music he immersed himself in the late 1940’s. This interest in Purcell was shared by Norbert Brainin (first violinist and founder of the Amadeus), who worked with Michael Tippett on editing Purcell. Three of Purcell’s string works are included here – the Chacony in G minor and the 4th and 6th Fantasias. The Amadeus Quartet’s approach, lushly played with plenty of vibrato, would not win favor with the historically informed performance movement. But it provides a very interesting counterpoint to their fine performance of the Britten quartet.
The Amadeus Quartet regularly programmed the last three Bártók quartets (4, 5, and 6). The Fourth and Sixth are represented here, recorded in 1955 and 1956 respectively. The Amadeus seem more at home in the Sixth than the Fourth (where the playing in the first two movements is a little uneven). The Mesto passages that open each movement are played with great depth and the musicians bring out the grotesque and ironic elements in the middle movements before the final movement’s melancholy close.
This set is the fourth in a six volume series with 25 CDs in total. The recordings all come from studio performances recorded in the post-war period by the RIAS radio station. RIAS stands for Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (Broadcasting in the American Sector). The engineers at Audite have remastered the original studio tapes to produce first-rate sound quality. The Tippett recording is slightly worse quality than the others, but still perfectly acceptable. And, as is typical for Audite, the liner notes (by Rüdiger Albrecht) are detailed and informative. This is an exceptionally well-produced set, highly recommended for historical and musical value.