Arnold: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2; Phantasy (Vita Abundans)

COMPOSERS: Arnold
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Arnold
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2; Phantasy (Vita Abundans)
PERFORMER: Maggini Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557762
The Phantasy, written when Arnold was 20, already shows his hallmarks: there’s an opening pizzicato with a cool, bluesy theme over the top, then a more passionate section which turns to melancholy and anger. Strangely, the slightly later First Quartet more readily recalls earlier models, particularly in its Bartókian opening movement and following Scherzo. It also shares with the later Bartók quartets an economy of means – this is lean music with no wasted notes, and it’s strikingly performed, with concentration in the playing and detail in the recording.

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The Second Quartet is a darker work, written in 1975, the year that Arnold attempted suicide. As Richard Whitehouse’s note points out, it inhabits an emotional world similar to the earlier Seventh Symphony, with the same contrast between the anguished and the superficially sentimental. That’s neatly demonstrated in the first movement, where tension mounts until the music melts into the closing nostalgic melody. Again, the performance captures all the twists and turns of the composer’s embattled mind: through the Celtic dance in the Scherzo, and the desolate intertwining lines of the Andante, to the finale, whose desperate mood-swings are reinforced by the apparently happy ending. Strong stuff. Martin Cotton