Bishopsgate Hall, London
29 October 2013
Gresham Professor Roger Parker's lecture on Britten's third quartet. Given in August 2013. From here.
This concert was so good I have trouble accepting that it was free, provided presumably for City bankers on their lunchbreak. I noticed none of those, unsurprisingly, but I felt that the 45-minute, two-work concert needed no further justification: it worked perfectly.
No doubt it mattered that the two pieces were string quartets, a medium optimised for that convivial tension we associate with chamber music.
This programme might have been devised by the musicologist Hans Keller, combining his two enthusiasms, for Haydn’s quartets and for Britten’s music in general. Indeed Britten’s valedictory third quartet is dedicated to Keller.
Almost any Haydn quartet is a joy, giving the impression that, while we listen to them, we cannot imagine being anywhere else, or wanting to listen to anything else. Opus 54, number 2 doesn’t disappoint, though it is unusual in placing a heavy burden on the lead violinist. Here, her performance was as ecstatic as the composer must have desired.
The serious finale is also unusual, and Keller, perhaps swept away with enthusiasm, claimed that Haydn pre-empts Mahler and Tchaikovsky in ending a ‘symphonic’ piece with a slow movement. More reasonably he suggests that Haydn was introducing the ‘French overture’ style to his ‘symphonic’ quartets.
I wouldn’t deny the quartets are symphonic but the much later adoption of slow movement finales is surely better thought of as a response to the ‘finale problem’ composers faced after adopting Beethoven's model. If a slow movement is going to carry the whole gravity of a work, where can it be placed?
In this quartet, as everywhere else except his symphony 88, Haydn doesn’t aim for a profound, soul-searching slow movement. Which isn’t to say the slow finale isn’t both lovely and a beautiful surprise. So the work as a whole deserves to be placed with French overtures rather than, say, Mahler's symphonies.
Britten’s work justifies Keller’s enthusiasm, at least in this performance. It also has a sombre finale, in this case very clearly the emotional focus of the work. By the end of it I was very nearly in tears, not a reaction I typically associate with his music.
We’re very used to a narrative of Britten’s earlier warmer sounding style being pared down in the late 1950s, and though true, I hardly find his earlier works to be abundantly emotional or warm. His later astringency seems a natural consequence of the repressed approach found in almost everything he did, as if exuberance or even openness was vulgar.
It seems different in this quartet. The ascetic sound remains, but the associations with Death in Venice here seem to fulfil that earlier opera, rather than simply recycling its themes. The opera emerges as a weaker expression of the quartet, rather than the other way round.
It’s too easy to suggest that Britten found it easier to express emotions through pure music, without words getting in the way but that’s what I felt when listening to this piece. Clearly I need to listen to it further.
I clearly also need to listen to more performances by the Jubilee Quartet.