Like so many composers, Sir Arnold Bax is known by
only a fragment of his large output of music. Chief among the neglected
areas of his achievement is the chamber music, certainly less frequently
performed and recorded than his richly romantic orchestral scores.
Therefore it is good to find these two string quartets
coupled in an appealing budget release from Naxos, pleasingly recorded
by a talented ensemble already recognised for their prowess in British
music. According to the informative Naxos note by the indefatigable
Lewis Foreman, there was a time before World War Two when Bax's chamber
music - the Quartet No. 1 in particular - was often performed. Fashions
may have changed since then, but of course the music has remained the
same, as this excellent performance reminds us.
There are three movements in both these quartets, and
at 24 minutes and thirty minutes respectively, the scale is well judged
and not inflated in the least. Nor is the melodic invention found wanting.
In fact this music might attract those who question Bax's indulgent
manner in his orchestral works, particularly the symphonies.
The Second is the more ambitious and complex of these
two Quartets, with a really impressive funeral episode at the heart
of an otherwise lively finale. The Molto espressivo slow movement may
not quite justify its ten-minute span (admittedly others may disagree),
but like the First Quartet this remains well worth hearing, especially
at bargain price and with admirably atmospheric sound.