BRITTEN Three Divertimenti for String Quartet (12’)
DVOŘÁK Quartet No.11 in C Op.61 (39’)
DVOŘÁK String Quintet No.2 in G, Op.77 (35’)
Dvořák’s exceptional and unusually scored String Quintet No.2 is operatic in scope and richly textured, earning the dedication ‘For my country’ from the Czech composer, who yearned to create a distinctly bohemian musical language in a time of turmoil across eastern Europe. His celebrated Quartet No.11 features the thrilling, turbulent writing that has placed him at the heart of the chamber music repertoire.
BRITTEN Benjamin, Three Divertimenti for String Quartet
Britten planned these movements as part of a five-movement Quartetto serioso with a subtitle from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale: “Go play, boy, play!” An earlier version of the opening March was written for a suite inspired by the film Emil and the Detectives (the children’s novel by Erich Kästner was a great favourite of Britten’s), but this was never completed. Eventually he settled on a work in three movements, and the first performance was given by the Stratton Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on 25 February 1936. The audience response was chilly and a hurt Britten withdrew the Three Divertimenti, which were only published after his death. His brilliant gift for idiomatic quartet writing is already apparent in this early work – from the arresting rhythms and textures of the March to the beguiling central Waltz, and the driving energy of the closing Burlesque.
© Nigel Simeone
DVOŘÁK Antonin, Quartet No.11 in C Op.61
In 1881, the Viennese violinist Joseph Hellmesberger asked Dvořák to write a new work for his quartet. In October, while working on the opera Dimitrij, Dvořák was alarmed to read an announcement in the Viennese press that the first performance of this quartet would be given on 15 December. He wrote to a friend on 5 November: ‘It still doesn’t exist! … I now have three movements prepared and am working on the finale.’ In fact, Dvořák had no reason to panic: he worked quickly and the C major quartet was written between 25 October and 10 November 1881.
It has fewer overtly Slavonic elements than its immediate predecessor (the E flat Quartet, Op.51), and, perhaps in a nod to Hellmesberger’s commission, the main influences are from Viennese masters: Beethoven and, especially, Schubert. The spacious first movement transforms its two main themes with great ingenuity and harmonic imagination. The Adagio opens with a fervent theme presented as an intimate dialogue between the two violins; its second idea has what Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek described as a ‘veiled expression of melancholy’. The influence of Beethoven is most apparent in the rather terse Scherzo while the falling theme of the central Trio provides a delightful contrast. The finale (a sonata-rondo) brings the work to a joyous conclusion, with Dvořák at his most inimitably Czech.
After all the rush, Hellmesberger’s advertised December premiere in Vienna had to be cancelled due to a catastrophic fire at the Ringtheater, and the earliest known performance was given by Joseph Joachim’s quartet on 2 November 1882 in Berlin.
© Nigel Simeone
DVOŘÁK Antonin, String Quintet No.2 in G, Op.77
Scored for the unusual combination of string quartet and double bass, Dvořák’s String Quintet in G major was first performed on 18 March 1876 as the composer’s Op.18 – a number that was changed when the work was first published by Simrock twelve years later in 1888. Originally the work had five movements (with an ‘Intermezzo’ before the Scherzo, reworked as the Nocturne in B major for string orchestra), and despite the published opus number, it is one of the composer’s first chamber works to be fully characteristic of his mature style. The first movement opens with a motif played first by the viola (Dvořák’s own instrument) that dominates much of the musical argument – the triplet figure in it is to be heard in the second theme too. The Scherzo finds Dvořák writing in the style of a folk dance, the opening theme consists of a lively opening motif that contrasts with a gentler idea over which Dvořák later introduces a warmly expressive new tune. The third movement has been described by the great Dvořák scholar Otakar Šourek as ‘one of the most entrancing slow movements in the whole of Dvořák’s chamber music … a flowing stream of passionate warmth [and] depth of feeling’. The finale has the same kind of sunny mood as the first movement, but with an even greater sense of joyful energy. Though there are moments of repose (during which the thematic material is treated to some ingenious transformations), the work ends with what Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek aptly described as ‘high-spirited verve’.
© Nigel Simeone