I cannot resist posting more Arnell, and I still have several discs to go, happily for those who visit. Here we have five of his String Quartets (he completed a 6th, but I don't think it has ever been recorded). It took me a few listens initially to really appreciate them all; it was clear from the beginning that each quartet is superbly crafted-and as is always the case with Arnell, there is an abundance of ideas throughout.
Richard Arnell's String Quartet No. 1 of 1939 is on one movement and is an excellent example-though not the only example in his output-of a concentrated single-movement quartet. It is an exceptional score in British music of the time, and it followed no fewer than five student chamber works Arnell composed between 1936-38: three quartets and two string trios. I do not know if this first "official" quartet draws upon material from those earlier works, but the mere fact of their existence surely explains the composer's assured command of the medium and the handling of his material. There is no uncertainty here for the 22-year-old Englishman in New York, confidently demonstrating his own character. Here, within this concentrated single-movement span, is the personification of multi-movement expression, spurred by the juxtaposition of two principle melodic germs allied to a virtual plethora of developmental ideas, seemingly at times as a patchwork, but which on analysis declare themselves to be but organic growths from the very first idea after the the work's rhythmic birth, 'Allegro vivace'. A slower section unfolds, the textural richness of the music a complete contrast to the discursive nature of the first part, at all times emotionally mature and unwilling to hide behind a wall of youthful self-pity. Yet perhaps the the most remarkable aspect of this first mature essay is the nature of the closing pages: here is extraordinarily original quartet-writing as the work approaches its conclusion, the texture full yet emotionally satisfying as the music, almost suddenly, fades and leaves us with a memory of the opening idea. The first performance was given in the New York Public Library in 1940 by the great Galimir Quartet, Viennese émigrés from Europe, who had studied Berg's Lyric Suite, Ravel's Quartet and Milhaud's Seventh Quartet with the respective composers.
The First Quartet was followed relatively quickly by the Second, in 1941. This very different work, in three movements, was premiered in New Jersey. Here, the language may be similar, but the material is perhaps more elliptical yet at all times full of those inner motifs of organic life, as the music unfolds in the Allegro first movement. The ending of this movement is astonishing in context-for it is as though the central movement's study in slow motion, Andante con moto, grows naturally from the first, but only after a sudden break: our ears tell us that Arnell, having mastered the medium in his Opus 4, wishes to flex his new-found mastery on a broader (but not too broad) canvas. Here there is a textural mastery as well as a developmental one, subsumed by way of emotional expression of notable inner strength, fully able to encompass a wide emotive range, which never gets out of hand. The Presto con fuoco finale begins with similar richness, eruptive and powerful, but the emotional tenor soon eases to a lighter frame of mind, almost leading us to expect a rondo-like finale, which in some respects the music resembles, but the initial inherent energy will not be gainsaid as the music eventually surges to its final defiant gesture.
By 1947, Arnell had returned to England from the States, bringing with him three completed quartets, the Third having been written in 1945. The Second Quartet was first heard in Britain in a BBC broadcast in September of 1947 by the Martin Quartet (which had been founded by David Martin, with Neville Marriner as second violin). Like the Second, Arnell's Third Quartet is in three movements, but is on a somewhat broader scale, yet the work had to wait until June of 1949 for its first performance, by the Blech Quartet at that year's Cheltenham Festival. At the time, the Blech Quartet was one of the most important in Britain, having been founded in the 1930s by its leader Harry Blech, who was soon to leave to set up a new orchestra, the London Mozart Players.
Arnell's Third Quartet is the first of his mature quartets to which he appended a key -E flat major - and it is true that, compared to its predecessors, a basic tonality is more in evidence. In the earlier quartets, tonality as such is not abjured, but is felt more as a succession of tonal regions rather than an underlying force. This is planted immediately at the beginning with a descending unison idea from which the work grows; additionally, as the movement gets under way, a slightly greater preponderance of rhythmic figures, located within E flat and its related keys, becomes evident. Another point is the character of the work, notwithstanding what we may by now identify as characteristics of the composer, the nature of the material seems less combative, in a word more relaxed-perhaps engendered by the reliability of a strong home key-that permits the music to explore with a greater degree of certainty, and implied in the tempo indication Allegro vivace. The second movement, Lento non troppo, is a profound contemplation as the individual instruments one by one occupy center stage to take the mood forward though a succession of deeply-felt and warmly lyrical passages. This movement contains some of the very finest music within this series of works-utterly consistent in terms of style and outstandingly well written for the medium. Yet the final bars contain an element of dissent. The finale, Poco presto, is a remarkable tour de force of compositional skill, not least in the composer's control of the tricky rhythmic impetus he has set under way, and the main theme (the first four notes of which oddly recall, doubtless unwittingly, the plainchant 'Dies Irae') takes center stage until an intense release of energy sets the second main part of the movement in train to end the work in a mood of high exuberance.
|Arnell in (I believe) his mid 50s|
The New London Quartet (which was actually the three remaining players of the Blech Quartet led by Erich Gruenberg) gave the premiere of Arnell's Fourth Quartet, also at the Cheltenham Festival in July of 1952. The work had been written two years earlier, and in it Arnell reverted to a single-movment structure, such as he had utilized 11 years earlier. The Fourth Quartet shows shows considerable powers of concentration on Arnell's part-the concentration arising from just four notes - C, D, E, D - that are stated at the outset by the first violin in a basic Allegro tempo. Scalic passages decorate the texture, and at times expand it, but all the while the organic development of these adjacent four notes and their semi tonal contractions provide the true living character of the music. In terms of genuinely thematic material, therefore, for mnemonic purposes 'first or second subjects', there are none in this hefty opening paragraph, until a highly contrasted section gets under way, melodically more intense, itself growing from just three notes and affording a contemplative study-the texture more finely woven from such a simple beginning.
The sympathetic listener who has followed the line of Arnell's String Quartets thus far will be aware that here is a remarkable original body of music-and the Fifth Quartet from 1962 continues this train of compositional thought. The American conductor Warren Cohen (who has performed almost all of Arnell's orchestral music in the U.S., giving several premieres) commented that the "..professionalism of Arnell's music - [is] so effortlessly perfect that you might miss the depth, beauty and profundity behind those notes".
|Arnell in his later years|
One of the more remarkable aspects of Arnell's Fifth Quartet is the extraordinary structural premonition it contains of Britten's Quartet No. 3 (1975) - that, as mentioned earlier, of the "multi-movement" work, either as a group of movements or as parts of an (often) concentrated single-movement composition. Needless to say in 1962 Britten's Quartet had not yet been written, but in this
multi-movment structure Arnell foreshadows aspects of Britten's work and even goes one further in terms of texture: for Arnell's Fifth Quartet comprises solo and duo movements and a trio before the coming together once more of the four players in the finale. In other respects, the texture also presages aspects of late Shostakovich in sudden unison writing. All in all, the work has to be counted one of the most impressive achievements for a composer who was not himself a string player!