CD Review: ‘Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell’

The Emerson String Quartet, still going strong after 40 years
April 23, 2017 Updated: April 27, 2017

The Emerson String Quartet is in the midst of its 40th anniversary season, and the group is marking the occasion with, among other events, a new CD and an upcoming concert at Carnegie Hall.

The group’s members are Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer on violins, Lawrence Dutton on viola and Paul Watkins on cello. Watkins, a well-known soloist, conductor and chamber musician, joined in 2013, when he replaced cellist David Finckel.

The Quartet has received numerous awards over the years, including nine Grammy Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize and has been named Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year.”

The new CD may be considered a tip of the hat to Watkins, who comes from the British Isles. The CD is titled “Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell” (on Decca Gold).

The two leading British composers of their respective times lived three centuries apart—Henry Purcell from 1659 to 1695 and Britten from 1913 to 1976.  The 20th century composer was an avowed admirer of Purcell and famously incorporated his music into his popular work, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” Opus 34 (1946).

The album begins with Purcell’s “Chacony in G Minor, Z 730” in an arrangement by Britten (who also wrote an arrangement of the piece for string orchestra). The genesis of the work is unknown and even the title is mysterious. Why, for example, did Purcell call it a “chacony” and not a chaconne? The 18 variations on an 8-bar theme are stately, with a hint of melancholy.

(Decca Gold)
(Decca Gold)

The Quartet performs Purcell’s Fantasias numbered 6, 8, 10 and 11. These are believed to have been written when the composer was about 21 years old and were intended as musical exercises in counterpoint. Like Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” to which these works have been compared, the beauty of the music surpasses the technical nature of the work.

Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 (1945) is certainly a fitting piece for the album since it was created to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. The last section is titled a “Chacony,” an explicit reference to the word Purcell used and may have coined. The work skillfully combines influences from Purcell as well as the 20th century Russian composer Shostakovich.

Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1973, near the end of the composer’s life. The piece goes through various changes, from a duet that turns adversarial to a burlesque and ending with a recitative and passacaglia entitled “La Serenissima.” This is a reference to Britten’s final opera, “Death in Venice,” and, as one might expect, the music, some of which is taken from the opera, is haunting.

The Emerson Quartet moves effortlessly across the centuries to achieve a unity in the related if stylistically different works by two great English composers. The album, the group’s first, with Watkins, is consistent with their high standards.

The group will appear at 3 p.m. on May 7 in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, in a concert featuring the Ravel and Berg Quartets and the Brahms Quintet with pianist Yefim Bronfman. Lovers of chamber music will not want to miss this concert.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.