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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Sir Malcolm Arnold’s two String Quartets date from very different periods in his career, one early, written in 1949, the other later, written in 1975 at a period when his life had fallen apart and he was suffering serious tensions. The Maggini Quartet here add to their superb series of British quartets for Naxos with a disc that makes one marvel that these fine works are not far better known. Though they are technically demanding, both of them demonstrate Arnold’s gift for bringing out from whatever medium he is using sounds that are utterly original. Even in the very early Phantasy, which comes as a very welcome bonus, a piece written when he was still in his teens, he was using the medium with a confidence and originality which rightly won him a prize in the Cobbett competition, for which it was entered in 1941.



Christopher Latham
Limelight Magazine, December 2007

…his second quartet is far more powerful and substantial than one would ordinarily expect from someone who wrote the popular but light set of Cornish Dances. It is high time for his reputation to be reassessed.



Susan Pierotti
Stringendo, December 2007

The music on this disc comes as a complete surprise for those who have only heard Malcom Arnold’s more popular dance suites of film music. It is robust and energetic, full of vitality and interest. I disagree with the booklet notes that describe the composer struggling with bitterness and disillusionment—I found much of it to be cheerful, with all the unsettled and tumultuous elements resolved in major tonalities and even outright triumph. The Phantasy and 1st Quartet are by a composer who is at times uncompromisingly abrasive but who has also studied the art of writing for strings to excellent effect. The 2nd Quartet was written 30 years later, a work of maturity and good craftsmanship. Of particular note are the fine cadenzas of the first violinist, Lawrence Jackson, though all the players of the Maggini quartet excel in conveying the humour and good spirits inherent in these pieces.



Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, September 2007

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!



Matthew Rye
The Daily Telegraph (Australia), June 2007

It is difficult to identify the familiar voice of Malcolm Arnold from the hard-edged echoed of Bartók and Hindemith that fill his First String Quartet of 1949. The Second, from 1975, is perhaps more characteristic, though it shares the intensity of expression of its predecessor.

The Maggini Quartet again puts us in its debt for exploring the byways of the British string quartet with such dedication and insight. Its sense of ensemble is acute – listen to the panache with which it attacks the violent world of the First Quartet’s scherzo – while the players’ individual characters ensure constant interest in the slower passages.



Tiina Kiik
The WholeNote, June 2007

British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold is primarily known for his nine symphonies and his film scores. His skilful technique in the orchestral genre was undoubtedly influenced by his position as a trumpeter in both the London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestras. It was after winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1948 that he decided to end his performing career and instead focus his creative energies on composition.

The String Quartets No. 1 and No. 2 were composed at opposite ends of his compositional career. Also including the Phantasy for String Quartet “Vita Abundans”, this new release featuring the Maggini Quartet is a first-class introduction to “another side” of one of Britain's most important 20th century composers.

Both quartets illustrate Arnold's impeccable ability to create a sense of tough individuality and continuity from diverse musical ideas. String Quartet No. 1 (1949) with its hammered repeated-note gestures and lyrical melodies illustrates the composer's early influences from Bartok and Hindemith. String Quartet No. 2 (1975) is a powerful work - the toughness is tempered by passionate melodies. A pseudo Celtic dance appears in the first movement while a trademark chorale section highlights the stunning second movement.

The Maggini Quartet approach Arnold's music with masterful musicianship. Their performances are so secure that it sounds like they are playing from memory! Richard Whitehouse's liner notes are thorough and entertaining, while the production values are what to be expected from Naxos. This is a welcome addition to the recorded works of Sir Malcolm Arnold.




Rick Jones
Classic FM, May 2007

The first major recording of Arnold's music to appear since his death celebrates not his Oscar-winning film scores or nine symphonies but his chamber music. Gritty, hard, passionate and personal ­these qualities come across in the Maggini's account of Arnold's three works for string quartet, recorded in 2004. The adrenalin flows in Quartet No. l's vivace section, while the spooky, muted andante suggests a disturbed mind. So does the comically sentimental conclusion to Quartet No.2's allegro - this sort of bathos became an Arnold trademark. The Maggini's bows bite confidently on the strings, although the Phantasy is marked by an occasionally tentative touch, like a timid character hiding behind a cocksure front.



David Denton
The Strad, May 2007

Malcolm Arnold remains a musical enigma: he never seemed sure whether he was looking for popularity or craving acceptance as a serious composer. Nowhere is that more evident that in the two numbered quartets, which were composed at very different points of his life and are stylistically overshadowed by Bartók.

The music's unexpected mood swings can pose problems for the performers, though the Maggini players take them very much in their stride. In the pungent atmosphere that pervades the opening of the First Quartet from 1949 their impeccable weighting between instruments unravels the texture into lucid strands. The Scherzo is full of virtuoso zest, while the quartet's care over varying levels of pianissimo shades an introverted slow movement. The music returns to a more atonal style ina finale where a sense of resignaton takes over.

Twenty-six years later nothing much had changed: the Second Quartet is equally full of mood swings, with the hard-hitting opening Allegro suddenly giving way to a tune straight from Arnold 'pop' classic. The Scherzo is a Celtic jig demonstrating the brilliance of the Maggini's since-departed first violinist, Laurence Jackson, while the work's later despondency highlights its outstanding violinist, Martin Outram.

The Phantasy for String Quartet was an entry for a 1941 London chamber music competition, for which Arnold reused the likeable material of his Wind Quintet. Rather lightweight and derivative of other composers, it is a skillfully constructed single-movement piece.

The Maggini is colonising British string quartets, and offering seldom-played works at Naxos's budget price. This superbly recordeed disc once again places us in its debt.



Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, May 2007

The first major recording of Arnold's music to appear since his death celebrates not his Oscar-winning film scores or nine symphonies but his chamber music. Gritty, hard, passionate and personal ­these qualities come across in the Maggini's account of Arnold's three works for string quartet, recorded in 2004. The adrenalin flows in Quartet No. l's vivace section, while the spooky, muted andante suggests a disturbed mind. So does the comically sentimental conclusion to Quartet No.2's allegro - this sort of bathos became an Arnold trademark. The Maggini's bows bite confidently on the strings, although the Phantasy is marked by an occasionally tentative touch, like a timid character hiding behind a cocksure front.



Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, May 2007

Marvel at the Magginis - who reveal Arnold as a thrillingly original voice.

The Maggini Quartet add to their superb series of British quartets with a disc that makes one marvel that these fine works are not far better known. They demonstrate Arnold's gift of bringing out from whatever medium he is using sounds that are utterly original. Even in the very early Phantasy, which comes as a welcome bonus, he was using quartet writing with a confidence and originality which rightly won him a prize in the Cobbett competition in 1941.

In both of the numbered quartets Arnold opens abrasively, almost as though he is seeking to demonstrate his modernity before relaxing into a more approachable, lyrical idiom. In No 1 (1949) the opening brings high entries for all four instruments, and if later there are one or two indications that he was influenced by tl1e quartets of Bartok, particularly in the Scherzo, the echoes are only peripheral and in no way obscure the composer's originality. The Andante brings a poignant melody, leading into the energetic finale.

The Second Quartet (1975) is generally sparer, with the bold opening involving the instruments in pairs, leading to a sequence of bold and striking ideas, well contrasted. For all the profusion of material, there is nothing perfunctory about the result. Nor is there in the opening solo violin passage, leading to an Allegro vivace main section like a Celtic dance.

The Andante is spare and dark in its "desolate polyphony", deeply meditative in the Maggini's superb performance, leading to a powerful climax and a hushed close. The finale opens with a violin melody over tremolos, a piece full of elusive shifts linked by the main theme, resolving in a warm, broad melody, and final emphatic chords. The Maggini performances achieve new standards and their bargain disc offers a valuable supplement in the Phantasy.



Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, April 2007

The members of the Maggini Quartet once again work their magic with these three selections by English composer Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006). The first quartet (1949), which is in four movements lasting only about twenty minutes, represents the composer at his most concise. When you hear it, Bartok's works in this genre will undoubtedly come to mind. Brief high-strung motifs are introduced and imaginatively developed in the first movement, while the next is a buzzing scherzo that could easily be subtitled "Mosquitos." The following andante is the longest movement and quite haunting in a pensive way. The finale is a real curiosity where the central thematic idea is never quite able to establish itself and simply disappears bringing the movement to an untimely end. The second quartet (1975), also in four movements, lasts almost half an hour. It's more typically Arnold with unpredictable changes of mood like the light produced by windswept fleecy clouds on an otherwise sunny day. The opening allegro begins assuredly, but becomes distracted and ends with an attractive swaying melody. The second movement commences with a violin cadenza spiced with glissandi. This soon turns into what sounds like an Irish jig, which the other instruments take up as the movement ends on a bustling festive note. The andante is the emotional nexus of this work where the composer is at his darkest and most profound. The last movement consists of lovely lyrical opening and closing sections that parenthesize an agitated central development. The Vita Abundans Phantasy (1941) begins with a rather bluesy sounding theme that withstands several life-threatening transformations only to become all the more vibrant as the piece ends. Thus the sobriquet, "Abundant Life." Thought provoking music, superb performances and excellent recorded sound make this release a must for modern music lovers.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Unpredictable, highly charged and often dark in character, Malcolm Arnold's two string quartets are important 20th century works that you should not overlook. Born in 1921, he hadstudied trumpet at the Royal College of Music in London, and composition with Gordon Jacob, though it was to be a mix of Sibelius and Walton that provided his early influences. We may feel we will never know Arnold, his popular appeal that came from his vast output for films rubbing shoulders with works, such as the First String Quartet, that have an uncompromising modernity. Dating from 1949 the score links with Bartok and at times with the atonality of Webern. Then into this tough atmosphere there appears in the fourth movement one of those pleasing little 'pop' classic tunes that permeate his happier pieces. That wide mood swing appears more frequently in the Second Quartet, dating from 1975, and at a time when his private life was in turmoil. Seldom do we find a more silky smooth melody than that which closes the first movement; the second is based on a Celtic dance, while changes of mood appear abruptly in a finale where Arnold explores quartet sonorities. The disc ends with one of his earliest scores, the Phantasy for String Quartet, written in 1941 for a London chamber music competition. It did not win and was not performed at the time, Arnold reusing the material in the Wind Quintet. Rather lightweight and hugely derivative, it is a skilfully constructed single movement piece. Having in the past so often praised the Maggini's playing, I can only repeat that in British music they are in a league all of their own. Intonation, internal balance and technique are impeccable, and they seem to have an insight into their national composers that others simply don't possess. An ideal recording completes a super release.






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