String Quartet No.1, Op.23
String Quartet No.2, Op.118
Phantasy for String Quartet “Vita Abundans”
[Laurence Jackson & David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola) & Michael Kaznowski (cello)]
Recorded 14-16 December 2004 in Potton Hall, Suffolk
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: May 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.557762
Duration: 57 minutes
Malcolm Arnold’s two string quartets, written nearly thirty years apart, represent the composer at his most serious. Quartet No.1 dates from 1949, and its spiky soundworld suggests the twin influences of Bartók and Shostakovich (had any of Shostakovich’s quartets been heard in this country by then?). Like the Russian composer, the fact that Arnold wasn’t a string player himself was no obstacle to him writing idiomatically for string quartet.
The work opens with a restless Allegro commodo, which is followed by a nervy, rhythmically propulsive scherzo featuring at one point a theme in harmonics combining swagger and menace. The Andante third movement explores the accumulated tensions but ends inconclusively, leaving the brisk finale to try to resolve matters. This includes a brief but strenuous fugal passage, but its quiet final bars offer only a fragile conclusion.
The first movement of Arnold’s Quartet No.2, written in 1975, develops into a tense, angry piece, ending with a wistful cabaret tune (hinted at earlier, in the movement’s second subject) with, again, a suggestion of Shostakovich in the background. The first violin opens the second movement with a cadenza, then launches into a kind of sublimated folk-dance, innocent-sounding at first but taking a darker turn when the other instruments enter. The third movement is brooding and introspective, and here Shostakovich really does loom large, in the spare textures and tentative melodic lines. The finale is the most complex of the four movements, both structurally and emotionally, beginning in a kind of ruminative energy, switching to a sardonic vigour that recalls earlier tensions. Finally a big D major tune appears apparently out of nowhere (it’s actually a slowed-down version of the movement’s opening), but what seems like an artificially tacked-on happy ending is more enigmatic than it first appears.
The disc ends with the Phantasy, written in 1941. The opening theme faintly recalls the ‘Blues’ movement from Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (from 1927), though Arnold’s accompanying textures give it, at first, a more relaxed feel. The second section pulls you up short with a theme strikingly reminiscent of ‘Tonight’ from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” (which was written midway through the next decade). Overall, the Phantasy is an accomplished piece that shows its 19-year-old composer’s grasp of both musical structure and effective quartet writing.
A rival recording (which I haven’t heard) appeared in 2001 on Guild (GMCD 7216) from the Ceruti Ensemble, which also found room for the Quintet for flute, violin, viola, horn and bassoon, Opus 7. But this Naxos disc makes a satisfying package for anyone wanting to investigate Arnold’s music for string quartet. The Maggini Quartet gives devoted performances, full of rhythmic vitality and lyrical warmth, and not flinching from exploring the music’s darker aspects, particularly in the tormented Second Quartet.
The recording quality is well up to Naxos’s previous Maggini issues. The cover photo is odd, though. Call me pedantic, but why choose one showing only three instruments?