Albion Refracted: Piatti Quartet
BRIDGE - BRITTEN - PHIBBS - TURNAGE
The Piatti Quartet present British music for string quartet, including two world premieres by Joseph Phibbs and Mark-Anthony Turnage alongside works by Britten and Bridge.
- The inspiration for the album began with their commission of Joseph Phibbs’ String Quartet No 1 in 2014, premiered at the Rye Arts Festival, where audiences were enthusiastic to hear the work again.
- The Three Idylls by Frank Bridge are apt companion pieces to the Variations on a theme by Frank Bridge by Benjamin Britten.
- The finale to this British-themed compendium owes its inclusion to the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, where the Piatti Quartet won a special prize in 2015 for a performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s piece Contusion. This is the world-premiere recording of Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad, premiered in 2010 by the Belcea Quartet. In this piece, the outer movements draw on themes by Led Zeppelin, from Dazed and Confused and Stairway to Heaven and the central movement is dedicated to Fausto Moroni, a long-term partner of the composer Hans Werner Henze with whom Turnage studied.
The Piatti Quartet are: Nathaniel Anderson-Frank – violin 1 (violin 2 in Bridge), Michael Trainor – violin 2 (violin 1 in Bridge), Tetsuumi Nagata – viola and Jessie Ann Richardson – cello
- Sleeve Notes
Frank Bridge – Three Idylls
Frank Bridge is now principally remembered as Benjamin Britten’s first composition teacher, rather than as a composer in his own right. In the decade or so before the First World War he was known above all for his miniatures, such as the exquisitely wistful ‘Rosemary’ – originally written for piano in 1906 and later orchestrated – with occasional excursions into larger-scale works such as his orchestral suite The Sea (1910-11), the work which ‘knocked sideways’ the ten-year-old Britten when it was performed in Norwich in October 1924.
Like such leading English composers as Vaughan Williams and Holst, Frank Bridge trained at the Royal College of Music, taking composition lessons with Charles Villiers Stanford. Yet his sensibility was quite different: while Vaughan Williams and Holst went on to absorb influences from leading modern composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky while paradoxically cultivating a consciously national voice in their music, Bridge quietly developed his own style, absorbing less colourful influences – principally Brahms (a composer much approved by his teachers at the RCM) and Fauré; yet in time he appeared more at home with developments on the continent, his music reflecting his admiration of Alban Berg. Before the War, Bridge composed mostly for the salon, writing several songs as well as works for piano and for chamber ensembles including string quartet and piano trio. Yet we should not be misled into thinking Bridge at that time was a mere purveyor of charming yet insubstantial pieces. Like Elgar, he realised that the miniature could carry an enormous emotional load – indeed his short movements are often as dramatic as a sonata movement two or three times their length. Even his more restrained pieces have a subtlety, like Fauré’s, which become more apparent with each listening. Indeed, as the contemporary British composer Anthony Payne has confessed, ‘it is the early Edwardian and “English” late-romantic, middle-period works that have yielded increasingly rewarding experiences’.
The Three Idylls, composed in 1906, are very much of this period. The second Idyll in particular is now well known through its use as the theme for Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; yet all three movements are moving and affecting pieces well worth getting to know. The first, Adagio molto espressivo, is by far the longest and takes its listener on a poignant emotional journey, starting with the viola introducing a gently melancholic theme. Ravel’s recently composed String Quartet appears a likely influence, particularly as the music reaches its first forte with its sweet ninth harmony. Eventually, an apparently lighter-hearted central section – Allegretto moderato e rubato – is introduced, which reaches an impassioned climax; but just as this appears to achieve contentment, the music abruptly fades like a dream. The melancholic theme returns, the instruments now muted, for a subdued end.
The second Idyll, Allegretto poco lento, has the hint of a waltz, but with elliptically bitter-sweet harmonies, anticipating the anguished lyricism of Berg to which Bridge and his pupil Britten were to be so attracted. Finally, the vigorous Allegro con moto, including a contrasting episode with a strong Elgarian flavour to its impassioned lyricism, brings the suite to a lively close.
© Daniel Jaffé
Benjamin Britten – Three Divertimenti
Britten’s Three Divertimenti began life as a projected five-movement suite for string quartet Alla Quartetto Serioso, subtitled ‘Go play, Boy, play’ (a line taken from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale), composed while he was a student at the Royal College of Music. Like his earlier Three Character Pieces for piano (1930), Britten had originally intended each movement to depict or evoke various close friends: of the original three movements he managed to complete, ‘Alla Marcia’ – later reworked in the song cycle Les illuminations – was originally subtitled ‘P.T.’ (Physical Training) and dedicated to his schoolboy friend from Gresham’s, David Layton; ‘Ragging’ (later reworked as ‘Burlesque’ in Divertimenti) was dedicated to Francis Barton, a fellow pupil at South Lodge who subsequently had a successful career in the Royal Marines, rising to the rank of Major-General. These, and ‘Alla Valse’ – that is, three of the projected five movements – were first played by the Macnaghten String Quartet (Vaughan Williams having alerted Anne Macnaghten to Britten’s work) on 4 December 1933 at All Hallows Barking, followed by a performance at the Mercury Theatre as part of a Macnaghten-Lemare Concert on 11 December 1933. The latter performance was described by The Times critic as done with ‘ruthless efficiency well suited to the music’; Britten was so dismayed by how the work sounded, though, that he left afterwards without thanking Anne Macnaghten and her quartet.
With the promise of a performance by the Stratton Quartet, which took place at the Wigmore Hall on 25 February 1936, Britten finally revised the suite into its present form, replacing the original ‘Alla Marcia’ (now published as a separate piece) with an entirely new ‘March’. Despite a successful morning rehearsal, the afternoon performance according to Britten’s diary was ‘a dismal failure’ and was received by the audience ‘with sniggers & pretty cold silence’. He effectively withdrew the work, and the Divertimenti were only published some seven years after his death. We can now appreciate the pieces as a fine demonstration of Britten’s colourful and virtuosic string writing of that period – sardonically witty for the ‘March’ (Prokofiev surely an influence), with swooping glissandos recalling the world of Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers written in the same year; the ‘Waltz’ more suave and even tenderly lyrical; and scintillating in the exhilarating ‘Burlesque’.
© Daniel Jaffé
Joseph Phibbs – String Quartet No. 1 - A note from the composer
In common with Haydn’s first quartets, as well as numerous examples of the genre from the 20th Century, this work is set in five main movements, the first being perhaps the most simple: soft, widely-spaced chords support a series of melodic phrases in the first violin which grow in intensity as the movement unfolds, with all four instruments coming to the fore during the coda. The second movement opens with the first of three versions of a lamenting melody (or canto) in the viola, before a fast and abrasive scherzo begins, the middle section contrasting with more lyrical passages. A slow duo for violin and cello follows, giving way to a lively pizzicato third movement. A second duo, for viola and violin features a folk-like melody, before the fourth movement (opening with a soft reprise of the viola canto) presents an agitated fugato which builds in intensity before dovetailing into a frenetic duo for two violins. The fourth duo, for viola and cello, follows: a soft, funereal chorale forming the final reprise of the viola’s canto. The last movement, a vocalise, recalls the opening movement by way of its simple chordal accompaniment, each instrument now assigned a melodic phrase.
The work’s structure as a whole could be seen as interweaving three layers: five principal movements; four duos, each drawing on a different combination of players; and three short cantos, all of which present the same viola melody in a different guise.
This work was commissioned by the Piatti Quartet with the generous support of the Britten-Pears Foundation, RVW Trust, and a private benefactor. The work is jointly dedicated to The Piatti Quartet and Brian Keeble.
© Joseph Phibbs
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad
‘I was always intimidated by the idea of writing a string quartet,’ admits Mark-Anthony Turnage. ‘Everyone tells you it’s difficult, and you need to be old to write a good one; and it’s hard as its difficult to create contrast with such a homogenous ensemble. All these things are true in a way, and that’s why it took me until my fifties to write one I was reasonably happy with.’
Though now presented as Turnage’s first string quartet, Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad was far from his first essay for that ensemble, as he admits: ‘I made a few early attempts (now withdrawn), and a few of the chamber pieces I wrote for the Nash Ensemble started life as a string quartet, but then I chickened out – I added another instrument or two. So when the Belcea Quartet asked me for a piece I needed something to distract me from the pressure I felt. Those amazing quartets by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich to name just a few are scarily good.’
What liberated Turnage was the music of the rock band Led Zeppelin: ‘I had known John Paul Jones their bass/keyboard player for 20 years but only really got to know their work at the time of their one off O2 concert [in London, on 10 December 2007] and John was also about to play bass in my opera Anna Nicole. So I needed to swat up on their back catalogue. I became obsessed. For me they are the most creative and brilliant band of that era.’
Two classic Led Zeppelin songs, ‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’, gave inspiration for Turnage’s new work for the Belcea Quartet: ‘I found working with these tunes so liberating. They made me forget how intimidating it is to write a string quartet. I just had fun.’
Completed in 2008, Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad falls into three movements. In the first, sub-titled ‘Variants on Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”’, one may sense something of the fun Turnage had in transferring elements of that song, including a four-chord descending formula characteristic of the blues, into the medium of string quartet. No doubt he was aided by the sonic example of Bartók’s quartets in particular; yet as the movement progresses one may also hear the expressionist world of Berg’s Lyric Suite.
The central movement, subtitled ‘In memory of Fausto Moroni Henze’, commemorates Fausto Moroni, long-term partner of the German composer Hans Werner Henze whom Turnage first studied under at Tanglewood in the States in 1983. Moroni suddenly died in 2007, not long after Henze himself had recovered from a coma. Turnage’s movement begins ‘Very slow, cold and hollow’, all the instruments muted and playing without vibrato: high keening sighs on the viola are heard against the glare of a high harmonic note sustained on the first violin, with eerie percussive knocks as the cellist followed by violist and second violinist tap the bellies of their instruments with their knuckles. In the following section, marked ‘Warmer’ in the score, the instruments play with their usual vibrato as the first violin plays rhapsodically; the music eventually becomes more animated (recalling the flurries and rhapsodic character of the central movement of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet), culminating in a brief but intense passage involving fortissimo tremolando on all four instruments. The keening sounds and knocking then return, the movement ending with mysterious, dusky chords.
With the third movement (its opening vibrato-less sustaining notes a subdued recollection of the start of the previous movement), Led Zeppelin is again a source of inspiration, the cello wistfully ‘singing’ the melody of ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Viola, then second violin, takes over, rhapsodising freely. Turnage’s reworking becomes increasingly hectic, even as one hears the song’s melody re-emerge on the cello, and eventually becomes – as with the original song – dance-like with infectiously swinging rhythms. Yet, unlike the song, Turnage ends with a characteristically brutal final gesture, an echo – perhaps – of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ which ends Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
© Mark-Anthony Turnage & Daniel Jaffé
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