British 20th century composer Sir Malcolm Henry Arnold [1921–2006] wrote two string quartets, and some incidental works in the genre. Both quartets have much to offer – I am going to discuss the Second Quartet, from 1975.
An exciting sweeping violin passage commences the work, with two violins constructing a melody and accompaniment. There are wonderfully rich atonal sounds here. The cello enters, in a harmonic role until it moves into a motivic section which the violins gravitate towards. This sombre mood is defined by grating violin thrusts. Now a busy section of much energy unfolds as the violins whirl about, together with pizzicato cello and viola. The cello continues with its thrusting assertions, creating a powerful mood. A return to the opening feeling is profoundly beautiful before a section of pure British pastoralism moves toward the conclusion.
The second movement opens with a solo violin passage, in a purposeful, although lamenting manner. The solo nature continues for a considerable time. It now plays a folk-like passage, which signals the entrance of the ensemble. This becomes very stilted, and somewhat dense, although it retains the folk-like feeling. It ends on a sweeping violin.
The next movement, marked andante, begins with a sparse, mournful sound. Violins and cello display a sense of abstraction in this atonal passage which is music to die for, and uniquely British. Eventually, a solo violin moves the music forward, with little input from the ensemble. The harmonies are very sparse and for this listener, quite beautiful. I have the volume cranked, to hear the nuances. An increase in volume signals the entrance of a full-blown ensemble sound, which doesn’t last. Arco cello continues with the violin – such a passionate sound, and very resonant. Nearing the end, the texture returns to a dominant violin, with only a hint of accompaniment. A fade ensues. This has to be the emotional heart of the work with its wonderful British writing, evoking compatriots Daniel Jones and Edmund Rubbra – high praise indeed.
The final movement again, has elements of folk music. Completely tonal, this offers up a contrast to the previous movements. A change into a section of overlapping violins and a rhythmic motif doesn’t last and the music pushes onwards. Now there is a sense of atonality, which turns out to be very brief. A change brings an aggressive cello, which supports equally aggressive violins as a new mood is developed with glissandi and prominent thrusts which I find a little overbearing, The tension builds before finally moving into a passage that is anthemic and again, very British. A section of thrusting chords is a fine conclusion.
The review CD also contains the First Quartet and a relatively long Phantasy for String Quartet ‘Vita Abundans’ from 1942.
This CD is by the Maggini Quartet on the Naxos label. I picked it up on a 20-CD box set, British String Quartets, which is a survey of the complete string quartets of fourteen 20th Century composers – some span two or three discs. I would recommend this set to anyone with an interest in the British style. It cost me about $100 Australian from Presto Classical, which included postage and relevant taxes. I think it is a worthwhile purchase.
Listenability: Exemplary British Works.