Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: Nos. 1–5
DUTTON 7268 (65:33)
Richard Arnell’s first published quartet, from 1939, wasn’t his earliest work in the medium. He composed two string quartets in 1937, and another the following year. Clearly, the string quartet meant a lot to him at the time, which is why it’s curious they eventually formed such a small part of his oeuvre.
The String Quartet No. 1 appeared shortly after Arnell completed his studies at the Royal Academy of
Music, married, and left for the U.S. to take in the New York World’s Fair, while presumably securing some commissions. It’s a single-movement affair, with more than hints of the adventurous attitude toward tonality the composer would later display, along with his interest in the transformational possibilities of cells built on small intervals. The Second Quartet appeared two years later. The individual instrument lines are far suppler and more independent, more the interesting conversation of four equals than before. Counterpoint is frequent, as imitative entries, fugal passages, and movement over a ground. The slow movement is both technically assured, and dramatically compelling, while the
finale has the air of a delightfully manic gigue. With the String Quartet No. 3 from 1945, we’ve moved from Arnell’s exploration of technical intricacies to something more relaxed and congenial. Forms are more open, counterpoint present but less on display; and there’s a lyrical warmth that at times recalls other composers on the American scene who were adopting elements of folk and popular music of an earlier day than their own. I’d single out the
lento non troppo
as the best thing in the work, anchored by a magnificently reposeful theme that’s frayed at its edges with doubt. It’s a tough act to follow, and the finale’s lightness and high spirits seem forced by comparison.
The Fourth String Quartet of 1950 was actually the first in the series to be written in the U.K., as Arnell had been stranded on these shores with the advent of World War II. It returns to the single-movement structure of the First Quartet, but from an understandably more concentrated perspective. The form is more of a fantasia than anything else, in which all thematic elements derive from a four-note cell stated at the outset, then augmented, diminished, inverted, and varied according to a variety of expressive needs. What sounds like a vigorous first theme gives way to a rhapsodic one, almost according to sonata form—except that they’re variations on the same cell. This gives the work at times an air of delighted self-discovery, rather like the conscious pleasure afforded by the contrapuntal ingenuity of the String Quartet No. 2, but on another, altogether more elevated level. It is a game, not to show mastery, but to revel in it.
Twelve more years were to pass before Arnell turned for a final time to the string quartet medium, and then with a highly personalized work in seven aphoristic, intense movements that continue into one another, despite the presence of breaks. Tonality is more tenuous and the harmonies more astringent, but never consistently so; at no time does the composer retreat into academic dryness. The expressive content is by turns openly mocking, slyly humorous, desolate, and consoling, in a mix that defies easy categorization. The journey at times reminds me of Weinberg’s late string quartets, though his works are longer—and more numerous. It’s unfortunate Arnell never completed another string quartet, given what he achieved in his last pair.
The Tippett Quartet has been enthusiastically received in these pages by Jerry Dubins (Bax and Bridge,
34:5), Paul Ingram (Tippett’s Third and Fifth Quartets,
33:4), and Lynn René Bayley (Tippett’s First, Second, and Fourth Quartets,
32:6). Ingram in particular wrote of their balancing “detail, tight rhythm, and emotional response without losing tonal focus or the long structural view,” and I second those views. Arnell’s Fifth Quartet notably never lets up in its technical and expressive demands, and these are met here with great success. I should also mention that the Tippett musicians are not only technically expert, but possess a sleek beauty of tone, though if these performances are anything to judge, they aren’t enslaved by it.
Excellent sound, and good liner notes. Definitely recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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