By Lawrence Budmen

The British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is best known for his operas and orchestral and solo vocal works. Indeed his opera "Peter Grimes" (1946) may be the last great music drama. He also wrote a considerable amount of chamber music - sonatas for violin and cello and no less than eight scores for string quartet. While these intimate works are less known and performed infrequently, they constitute one of the most rewarding areas of Britten's compositional output. In 1975 Britten received a commission from the Amadeus Quartet. The composer was terminally ill and knew that he did not have much time left. Yet he rose to the challenge and produced his "String Quartet No.3," Opus 94. This extraordinary valedictory score was the emotional centerpiece of the concert by the Colorado String Quartet on March 19, 2003 at the University of Miami Gusman Concert, presented by the Friends of Chamber Music.

The quartet was Britten's last major work. This compositional swan song found the composer near the height of his creative powers. The music is by turns calm, lyrical, frenzied, and diabolical. The uncertain calm of the opening movement and the lovely singing line of the slow movement are shattered by the Burlesque - an agitated dance of death. A simple melody is turned into a hallucination with the players scraping their bows below the string instruments' bridge - a frightening musical effect. The concluding Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima) quotes themes from Britten's opera "Death in Venice." (The opera, based on the novel by Thomas Mann, tells the story of a creative artist who is pursued by a sinister individual in several guises who seems to be a symbol of death. The story may have been all too real for the composer.) The music of this final movement is elegiac, tragic, and intense. At the conclusion it soars into infinity - a seemingly endless melodic line. Yet the music manages to be uplifting. This score is Britten's highly personal version of death and transfiguration. The Colorado Quartet gave a spellbinding performance of this unique score. The formidable technical challenges were delineated with verve and Úlan. More importantly, this superb foursome cut to the music's emotional core. Every measure was imbued with power and meaning. The full tragic overcast of this score was heard in this overwhelming performance.

The Colorado String Quartet is celebrating its' 20th anniversary. Each of the four musicians (Julie Rosenfeld and Deborah Redding, violins; Marka Gustavsson, viola; and Diane Chaplin, cello) are first class artists. Together they form a seamless ensemble. There is a perfect unanimity of phrasing in every bar they play. Ms. Chaplin's dark cello sound forms a lava toned counterpart to the bright sound of the violins. This group approaches every score with fresh, original interpretive ideas. There was a beautiful serenity in their performance of Brahms's "Clarinet Quintet in B Minor," Opus 115, in which they were joined by clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein. From the first magical notes this performance transported the listener to a 19th century musical salon. The opening Allegro had vigor but also warmth and emotion. The Adagio was one long, sustained song, meltingly played by Fiterstein. The Andantino was a pastoral air that sang with big toned lushness. The Con moto was lively and conversational. The final repeat of the score's opening theme was beautifully played and highly satisfying. Throughout the performance there was a feeling of inexorable musical logic behind every note that was arrived at through great musicianship. Mr. Fiterstein is a winner of the Young Concert Artists' auditions. He possesses a large, clear tone and a brilliant technique. His singing line had a wonderful baritonal legato. He did not attempt to play the music as a clarinet showpiece. Rather he played as part of a perfect ensemble - harmonious and at one with the music. He is an artist to watch. 

Beethoven's "Quartet in F Minor," Opus 95 ("Serioso") received a taut, riveting performance from the Colorado foursome. The opening Allegro con brio was brusque and driven. The musicians brought a sense of uneasy mystery to the Allegretto ma non troppo. The Allegro assai vivace ma serioso had a wild, rustic quality while the finale Larghetto espressivo-Allegretto agitato was more modernist than romantic. The entire performance had an intense, edgy feeling that seemed to come from the musicians' reexamination of the score - call it "New Age Beethoven." It made for stimulating listening. The playing was filled with rapt intensity and splendid ensemble. 

The Colorado Quartet has the unique ability to make the most familiar score sound new. Their striking performance of a poignant musical farewell by Britten and a lovely collaboration with a gifted young clarinetist made for a wonderful evening of chamber music. A great 20th anniversary and many more!

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