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Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 23 (1949) [18:37]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 118 (1975) [27:32]
Phantasy for String Quartet, Vita Abundans (1941) [10:50]
Maggini Quartet
rec. 14-16 December 2006, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.557762 [56:59]

Naxos have done sterling service for the music of the late Sir Malcolm Arnold. Now we welcome another Arnold release; this time of the works for string quartet.

A winner of an Academy Award for his score for the 1957 David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai, Arnold died on 23 September 2006. The current revival of interest in Arnold’s music is partly as a result of the celebrations planned for his eighty-fifth birthday on 21 October 2006 and the usual phenomenon of interest that tends to follow shortly after the death of a composer. I note that this disc was recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk in December of 2006 shortly after Arnold’s death. At this point I must mention another recent Arnold release performed by the East Winds ensemble that was recorded in June 2006 at Potton Hall on Naxos 8.570294. Comprising twelve wind chamber scores, five of which it seems are world premiere recordings, this superb Naxos release will be one of my 2007 ‘Records of the Year’.

Cast in four movements the String Quartet No.1 is one of Arnold’s comparatively early compositions and was premièred in 1950 by the New London String Quartet on the BBC Third Programme. A product of Arnold’s period of Bartók adulation its progressive nature may have come as a relative shock to some. One notices certain similarities in character with Arnold’s contemporaneous First Symphony. These two scores seem to reflect the austerity and dark foreboding of the Cold War era.

The opening movement marked Allegro commodo is played by the Magginis with all of Arnold’s essential agitation and a sense of futile searching. With the final section of the movement one notices the mood altering to one of chilling bleakness. In the Vivace the Magginis provide frenzied speeds and violent forward thrusts and in the Andante the bleakness returns together with a sense of solitude. The Magginis convincingly convey a generally upbeat, yet unsettling mood in the final movement Allegro con spirito. The music lessens in intensity and weight to gradually fade away into the distance.

Composed over twenty-five years after the First Quartet, the String Quartet No.2 was completed in 1975 and lies chronologically between Symphonies 7 and 8. The four movement score is dedicated to Hugh Maguire, the first violinist of the Allegri Quartet who gave the première in 1976 at Dublin Castle and then a few days later at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk. It came after a period of great success for Arnold especially for his numerous film scores. However by this time the composer’s personal life was in turmoil, his reputation on the wane and many of his works overlooked by concert programmers.

The Magginis communicate a powerful and extrovert reading of the opening Allegro remarkable for its terse and acute episodes of aggression. The second movement, a highlight of the disc, is notable for the dissonant and quirky passage for solo violin splendidly played by leader Laurence Jackson. From 1:51 the mood changes drastically with an extraordinary Celtic folk-dance. The mood of the opening returns to bring the movement to a redoubtable conclusion. The Magginis provide a bleak chill and desolation to the Andante; not unlike the corresponding movement in the First Quartet. Here I am reminded of the sound-world of the mid to late Shostakovich string quartets. The appealing and lyrical final movement makes a welcome contrast to what has gone before. Excellently interpreted the movement especially in the section at 4:16-7:23 returns to the unsettling world of dissonance and turbulence.

An early work from Arnold, the Phantasy for String Quartet, titled Vita Abundans (Abundant Life) was composed in 1941 when he was a nineteen year old student. It received a second prize in the W.W. Cobbett competition that was won that year by Ruth Gipps with her string quartet Sabrina, Op 13. Arnold’s Phantasy appears not to have been given a public performance and has been neglected for well over half a century.

Opening with a darting restlessness one senses a hectic degree of activity going on both technically and rhythmically. At 3:21 the Magginis expertly change the mood to one of heartfelt yearning. Around 5:36 this gradually increases in intensity and uncertainty. At 8:43 a short bluesy passage develops into one of relative calm and tenderness tinged with mischief.

The première recordings of the two numbered Arnold quartets were by the McCapra Quartet at Cambridge University in 1992 on Chandos CHAN 9112. The McCapra are in outstanding form and provide high quality playing of character and strength. This is enhanced by clear and well balanced sonics. Another version of the Arnold quartets, that I am not familiar with, is the 2000 London performance from the Ceruti Ensemble of London on Guild GMCD 7216. Also included on the Guild disc is the première recording of Vita Abundans and the Quintet for wind and strings, Op. 7.

There is very little to choose between these performances of Arnold’s three scores for string quartet from the Maggini and the McCapra quartets. Both versions are excellently performed and have the benefit of first class recorded sound. The only real difference is the inclusion of the Phantasy on the Maggini/Naxos disc.

Many readers will be aware of the deep personal difficulties in Arnold’s often troubled life. With his highly melodic, dance-influenced music, with wacky humour and biting sarcasm, tears, pain and anguish are never far away. These two quartets reveal a lesser-known side to Arnold’s often complex and multi-faceted character. Arnold a popular and lightweight composer? Certainly not with these scores!

Michael Cookson


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