ARNOLD: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Phantasy for String Quartet "Vita Abundans" (Andrew Walton/ Maggini Quartet) (Naxos: 8.557762)
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Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)
String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2
Although his output centres on nine symphonies and two dozen concertos, chamber music was not neglected by Sir Malcolm Arnold. Numerous of these are compact pieces with a 'divertimento' character, but the two string quartets are emphatically of a serious nature. Both, moreover, came at crucial junctures in his career, which may well account for their intensity of expression: Arnold confronting his experiences head-on so that they can be transcended by his music.
The publication and recording of Arnold 's early music has made available numerous works of interest. Not least his Phantasy for String Quartet, completed in June 1941 and entered for the Cobbett Prize: a chamber music competition founded by the philanthropist W. W. Cobbett, whose advocacy had been of benefit to numerous British composers. Although the piece was awarded only second prize (the first going to Ruth Gipps), and appears not to have been performed publicly, Arnold reworked part in his Wind Quintet of 1942 and clearly retained affection for it. The subtitle, 'Vita Abundans ' (Abundant Life), may refer to the generative potential of musical motifs, a concept amply demonstrated by this piece.
Over syncopated pizzicati unfolds a moody, blues-inflected theme that gradually gains in impetus. Discussed intently by the quartet, between whom melody and accompaniment are resourcefully shared, it leads into the central section, a melancholic idea presented in richly expressive harmony and undercut by brusque interjections that presage a more animated third section. Heard initially against a tremolando accompaniment, an incisive rhythmic idea quickly takes hold of the instruments in different ways; the momentum building accordingly so a purposeful motion is gradually attained. At length, the theme from the central section is recalled, only for fragments from the rhythmic idea to interrupt with increasing frequency, before rounding off the work with a tersely conclusive gesture.
It was the award of the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1948 that led Arnold to terminate his career as a trumpeter (in which capacity he had served with distinction in both the London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras), and concentrate on composition. His works of this period explore a number of stylistic possibilities that, while not typical of the mature composer, are employed with a conviction that makes them nothing if not idiomatic. Such is true of the First String Quartet, composed in 1949 and given its première by the London Quartet in a BBC Third Programme concert in November the following year. Like the First Symphony [ Naxos 8.553406] which immediately preceded it, the quartet is a tough and uncompromising work; the presence of unexpected but potent influences (notably Bartók and early Hindemith) giving it its individuality, as well as a motivic compression that brings the work in at under twenty minutes.
An icily-descending motif prefaces the opening movement's restlessly chromatic first theme, which gravitates around the ensemble before a second theme, more lyrical but not more relaxed, emerges. A hammered repeated-note gesture dominates the brief central section, after which the first theme returns in what is less a formal reprise than its gradual dismantling towards the teasingly inconclusive close. The scherzo sets off at a hectic pace, its unceasing chain of repeated notes giving it a moto perpetuo character. The central section plays off shrieking violins against trenchant pizzicati, before the initial idea briefly returns with renewed intensity to drive the movement through to a sudden end.
Twice as long but equally fragmentary, the slow movement is pervaded by a pensive theme discussed by the quartet in poignant harmony. This dialogue proceeds, over a halting accompaniment, to a climax that presently dissolves into a heightened restatement of the theme against an uneasy tremolo backdrop. This gravitates to the bass, after which the music all but disintegrates into starkly frozen harmonics, before the main theme returns for a conclusion of musing uncertainty. The finale is launched by an angular theme that generates intensity without real stability. A second, closely-related theme sounds a note of greater lyricism, before the first theme returns in what seems to be a climactic fugato. Petering out almost as soon as it started, it heads into a coda that does not so much end the work as bring it to a provisional but intriguing pause.
By the time that Arnold completed his Second String Quartet in 1975, his 'glory days' as one of the most successful British composers of his generation had passed. This, and an increasingly unsettled domestic life, gives his music of this period its tragic and often bitter resonance, above all, in the Seventh Symphony of 1973 [ Naxos 8.552001], that compels as surely as it disturbs. On a more extended scale than its predecessor, the Second Quartet is even more quixotic in its juxtaposition of ideas and moods: the whole piece outlining a musical narrative that is no less powerful for its abstraction. Written for the Allegri Quartet, and dedicated to its leader Hugh Maguire, who gave the première in Dublin during June 1976 with a repeat performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, the work has only latterly come into its own and today ranks as a highpoint in what was undoubtedly a fecund period for string quartet writing in Britain.
The first movement erupts in a passionate melodic outpouring that is powerfully sustained across all four instruments. The second theme is sparer and more inward, coming to a halt from where the music takes off in a development marked by lunging repeated chords and impulsive changes of mood and texture. At length, the opening theme returns, but its rhetoric is soon undone by the gentler second theme that sees the movement through to its calm but regretful end. Even more unpredictable, the second movement opens with a lengthy violin solo that abounds in grating harmonies and sinister glissandi. It finally alights on an energetic theme akin to a Celtic dance, drawing the other instruments into the fray as both elements are superimposed on the way to a headlong close.
The slow movement is the work's undoubted focal-point, initially unfolding in desolate polyphony that yet offers a more considered perspective on what went before. Inflecting the main theme into new but evidently related shapes, not least a hushed chorale-like idea that is quintessential Arnold, it builds up to a nobly-wrought climax that lays bare the naked emotion at the heart of the quartet. Formally the most complex movement, the finale opens with a searching violin theme over rustling accompaniment, the theme being taken up by other instruments as the music unfolds with new purposefulness. This thins out into largely solo exchanges, before the theme returns, only to be curtailed by a scherzo-like music which, with its often manic glissandi, channels the momentum into new and unexpected territory. Equally as suddenly, this section plunges into a surging coda, derived from the opening theme, which quickly coalesces into a series of resolute and conclusive chords.