Reviews

GMCD 7216 – Vita Abundans – Chamber Music of Malcolm Arnold

Ceruti Ensemble: Oliver Lewis, Maya Bickel – Violins, Miranda Davis – Viola, Robert Bailey – Cello, Andy Findon – Flute, Dave Lee – Horn, Gavin McNaughton – Bassoon

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Musical Opinion September 2001

Malcolm Arnold’s chamber music contains some highly original scores which are available on disc in excellent performances. The Ceruti Ensemble are on great form on Guild’s GMCD 7216 in the first two String Quartets, the Quintet for Flute, Violin, Viola, Horn and Bassoon and the World Première Recording of the rediscovered 1941 Phantasy for String Quartet, subtitled Vita Abundans.. These deserve regular airings on Classic FM, whose audience would love them.
Robert Matthew-Walker

Gramophone October 2001

A valuable anthology including the première recording of the teenage Arnold’s Phantasy

Like his First Symphony from the same year, Arnold’s First String Quartet of 1949 is a bracingly concentrated, nervy creation. Superbly crafted and tersely argued, it’s an astringent Arnold himself apparently rates very highly amongst his own chamber music output. Its successor of 1975 is a scarcely less challenging beast. Granted, both outer movements are clean-cut and purposeful, and both conclude in a relatively untroubled D major. The second movement, however, is eventful to say the least. After a solo cadenza passage for first violin, the same instrument plunges into an earthy Irish folk dance in G major (it comes as no surprise to learn that the work was composed in Dublin and bears a dedication to Hugh Maguire, the then leader of the Allegri Quartet); what’s more, when the remaining voices do eventually enter the fray, they do so in the antagonistically remote key of C sharp minor. The effect could hardly be more unnerving, and the clouds fail to lift during the ensuing, spare-textured Andante.

Formed last year by violinist Oliver Lewis, the Ceruti Ensemble of London give strongly communicative accounts of both quartets, if without quite the entrancing poise, subtle blend and hushed intensity displayed by the youthful McCapra Quartet on Chandos. On the other hand, these newcomers offer two considerable bonuses in the shape of the engaging Quintet for flute, violin, viola, horn and bassoon from 1944, as well as the first recording of an even earlier Phantasy for String Quartet – a remarkably prescient, assured achievement for a 19-year-old student and runner-up in the 1941 Cobbett Competition. Once again, the Ceruti Enseble’s advocacy is infectious, the performance of the Quintet comparing favourably with that of the Nash Ensemble (whose outstandingly eloquent Hyperion survey of Arnold’s chamber music has now been reissued on three separate Helios CDs at budget price). With excellent booklet-notes by Robert Matthew-Walker and undistractingly faithful sound and balance throughout (if, at times, a touch more traffic rumble than ideal), here is a very likeable release.
Andrew Achanbach


BBC Music Magazine – September 2001

Malcolm Arnold’s complete output for string quartet is contained on this disc, including the previously unrecorded Vita abundans (‚Abundant Life‘), written when Arnold was 19 – and there’s still room for the three-movement Quintet, Op. 7. It’s surprising he hasn’t written more. All the quartet music shows a well-developed feel for the medium and the two numbered quartets show a side of Arnold which rarely appears elsewhere: as dark and edgy as any of the later symphonies, but more inward-looking and concentrated. The startling ‘happy ending’ of the Second distantly recalls the schmaltzy big tune which almost ends the finale of the Fifth Symphony, only here the irony is more elusive – which is the mask and which the true expressive face? The contrast with the witty, on the whole cheerful Quintet is striking. The Ceruti Ensemble plays with impressive, polished authority. It sounds as though the players have taken trouble to probe out deeper meanings in this music, though they never force anything. Riddles remain riddles, however forcefully presented – as in the bizarre Celtic-dance scherzo of Quartet No. 2. I would have liked a slightly brighter recording, but on technical grounds it’s hard to fault the sound.
Stephen Johnson

PERFORMANCE

SOUND


International Record Review – September 2001

lt is pleasing to find that some of the lesser- known corners of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s large oeuvre are surfacing in this, his 80th birthday year. The Nash Ensemble’s pioneering recordings of most of his chamber music have already been reissued on Hyperion’s Helios label; and now comes this enterprising release that falls in one or two of the gaps. Arnold’s two widely separated string quartets did not figure on the Nash set, though they do feature on a fine disc by the McCapra Quartet, a group that seems to have subsequently disappeared. On the present disc, the players are drawn from the Ceruti Ensemble and the results are no less convincing, if different. The First Quartet, from 1949, is not an easy piece to bring off. lt is hardly characteristic of the mature Arnold, in my view; some of the obvious influences – Bartók for example – are not fully digested, but the players nevertheless sound as if this curiosity of a work has been fully digested before being comnitted to disc. Likewise with the Second Quartet of 1979: to my mind this is one of Arnold’s finest works, searching but eminently approachable. Here the Ceruti Ensemble find tempos that in three cases out of four are slower than those adopted by the McCapra Quartet. As a result, some of the sheer bite of the piece is missing, but I find it a valid alternative approach and the work can certainly stand it.

There is a surprise in that the Ceruti Ensemble include a third Arnold quartet, a student work that won Second Prize in the 1941 Cobbett Chamber Competition. It is well worth hearing for its ingenious construction, tunefulness and evident mastery of texture. This well-filled CD is rounded out with another early chamber work, for three winds and two strings, again not wholly characteristic of the Arnold we know and love but well worth an outing. The sound-balance is impeccable and Robert Matthew-Walker contributes a stimulating note, though one mystery remains unexplained. The student Phantasy is subtitles “Vita Abundans”, but though the booklet includes two pictures with similar title, the connection is otherwise passed over in silence Piers Burton-Page


Classical Music on the Web – June 2001

Malcolm Arnold’s chamber music is an important aspect of his large output and reveals a more intimate, complex and, at times, secret composer. His two string quartets are among the most compelling works he ever penned. They were written during crucial periods of the composer’s life. The String Quartet No.l Op.23, completed in 1949, is a deeply personal utterance, though a quite uncharacteristic one, at least in stylistic terms. As I have already remarked elsewhere, the First String Quartet belongs to a group of works (Symphony for Strings Op.13 (1946), the Violin Sonata No.l Op.15 ( 1947), the Viola Sonata Op. 17 ( 1947) and the First Clarinet Concerto Op. 20 ( 1948)) which show Arnold at his most experimental and seemingly going through a “phase of Bartók-worship”, to quote the late Christopher Palmer’s very apt phrase. Indeed the music here looks to Berg or Bartók rather than to Walton or Vaughan Williams. It has a rather unusual stringency and tension hardly relieved (if at all) during the last bars of the Finale; no easy work but one of Arnold’s most important and personal achievements.

The String Quartet No.2 Op.118 was completed in 1975 during Arnold’s Dublin period which by all accounts was a most harrowing one. Other works of that period include the Symphony No.7 Op.113, one of Arnold’s most violent pieces, the enigmatic Fantasy on a Theme of John Field Op.116 and the Clarinet Concerto No.2 Op.115. All these works have much in common: the music is often elliptical, doom-laden, unpredictable, bleak (especially so in the slow movements). The Second String Quartet is no exception. The troubled, ambiguous first movement finds no resolution. The following Scherzo is still more enigmatic: it opens with some sort of cadenza for violin, the material of which is totally alien to the rest of the work. This then turns into some folk-like Irish jig angrily assaulted by the other strings. No dialogue whatsoever here. The slow movement, a darkly oppressive meditation, again has a hymn-like episode unrelated to the rest of the music. Finally the last movement partly succeeds in dispelling the prevailing angry mood, though victory with Malcolm Arnold is neither easily approached nor complete.

The much earlier Quintet Op.7 of 1944 (flute, violin, viola, horn and bassoon) is one of the works written for some of Arnold’s LPO colleagues. This accounts for the somewhat unusual instrumental combination. A lighter work, it is comparable with the celebrated Three Shanties Op.4 of 1943. The outer movements are mainly light-hearted, though the last one is unresolved at the end, whereas the slow section is rather more tense. In its quite short span, the Quintet Op. 7 is a remarkable example of the all-pervading ambiguity in Arnold’s music.

The novelty here is the Phantasy for String Quartet “Vita Abundans” written in 1941. This was awarded the second prize of the Cobbett competition that year. It is a quite remarkable piece of music in which Arnold fully demonstrates his mastery of variation form. Its six contrasted sections follow each other effortlessly, with an extraordinary musical logic and sureness of touch, and also a good deal of invention. One can but wonder why this beautiful piece remained unheard for more than fifty years.

The Ceruti Ensemble of London is a young group of gifted players and this is their first recording. Their readings of these pieces are really very fine. They play with assurance (though I spotted a momentary hesitation at the very beginning of the First String Quartet), commitment and – more importantly – with affection. There is not much to choose between their readings of the string quartets and those of the McCapra Quartet (on CHANDOS CHAN 9112 released in 1993). The only problem with the CHANDOS release is its short playing time. The present release, which is also an appropriate tribute to Arnold on his 80th birthday, is a must for all “Arnoldians” who will want to hear the splendid, long-neglected Phantasy Quartet. Unreservedly recommended.
Hubert Culot


EVENING STANDARD HOT TICKET MAGAZINE 14/06/01

CD CHOICE OF THE WEEK
…Arnold’s chamber music is even less well-known but much loved by thoses who play it.  The Ceruti Ensemble perform both of Arnold’s Bartok-inflected string quartets, the humorous, spiky, Poulenc-like quintet for flute, violin, viola, horn and bassoon and, for the first time on disc, the ‘Phantasy For String Quartet Vita Abundans’. This last is a gripping ten-minute work of jazz rhythms and long-phrased bluesy tunes. It is a tragedy that Arnold’s music is not more frequently played. Must we wait for his funeral?
Rick Jones

Classical Music on the Web 05.06.2001

Malcolm Arnold’s chamber music is an important aspect of his large output and reveals a more intimate, complex and, at times, secret composer. His two string quartets are among the most compelling works he ever penned. They were written during crucial periods of the composer’s life. The String Quartet No.l Op.23, completed in 1949, is a deeply personal utterance, though a quite uncharacteristic one, at least in stylistic terms. As I have already remarked elsewhere, the First String Quartet belongs to a group of works (Symphony for Strings Op.13 (1946), the Violin Sonata No.l Op.15 ( 1947), the Viola Sonata Op. 17 ( 1947) and the First Clarinet Concerto Op. 20 ( 1948)) which show Arnold at his most experimental and seemingly going through a “phase of Bartók-worship”, to quote the late Christopher Palmer’s very apt phrase. Indeed the music here looks to Berg or Bartók rather than to Walton or Vaughan Williams. It has a rather unusual stringency and tension hardly relieved (if at all) during the last bars of the Finale; no easy work but one of Arnold’s most important and personal achievements.

The String Quartet No.2 Op.118 was completed in 1975 during Arnold’s Dublin period which by all accounts was a most harrowing one. Other works of that period include the Symphony No.7 Op.113, one of Arnold’s most violent pieces, the enigmatic Fantasy on a Theme of John Field Op.116 and the Clarinet Concerto No.2 Op.115. All these works have much in common: the music is often elliptical, doom-laden, unpredictable, bleak (especially so in the slow movements). The Second String Quartet is no exception. The troubled, ambiguous first movement finds no resolution. The following Scherzo is still more enigmatic: it opens with some sort of cadenza for violin, the material of which is totally alien to the rest of the work. This then turns into some folk-like Irish jig angrily assaulted by the other strings. No dialogue whatsoever here. The slow movement, a darkly oppressive meditation, again has a hymn-like episode unrelated to the rest of the music. Finally the last movement partly succeeds in dispelling the prevailing angry mood, though victory with Malcolm Arnold is neither easily approached nor complete.

The much earlier Quintet Op.7 of 1944 (flute, violin, viola, horn and bassoon) is one of the works written for some of Arnold’s LPO colleagues. This accounts for the somewhat unusual instrumental combination. A lighter work, it is comparable with the celebrated Three Shanties Op.4 of 1943. The outer movements are mainly light-hearted, though the last one is unresolved at the end, whereas the slow section is rather more tense. In its quite short span, the Quintet Op. 7 is a remarkable example of the all-pervading ambiguity in Arnold’s music.

The novelty here is the Phantasy for String Quartet “Vita Abundans” written in 1941. This was awarded the second prize of the Cobbett competition that year. It is a quite remarkable piece of music in which Arnold fully demonstrates his mastery of variation form. Its six contrasted sections follow each other effortlessly, with an extraordinary musical logic and sureness of touch, and also a good deal of invention. One can but wonder why this beautiful piece remained unheard for more than fifty years.

The Ceruti Ensemble of London is a young group of gifted players and this is their first recording. Their readings of these pieces are really very fine. They play with assurance (though I spotted a momentary hesitation at the very beginning of the First String Quartet), commitment and – more importantly – with affection. There is not much to choose between their readings of the string quartets and those of the McCapra Quartet (on CHANDOS CHAN 9112 released in 1993). The only problem with the CHANDOS release is its short playing time. The present release, which is also an appropriate tribute to Arnold on his 80th birthday, is a must for all “Arnoldians” who will want to hear the splendid, long-neglected Phantasy Quartet. Unreservedly recommended.  Hubert Culot


MusicTeachers.co.uk Online Journal – 17.05.2001

Works of breadth and imagination with skilled performances.

There is an intensity about the first of Arnold’s quartets that, for him, is slightly unusual due to its consistency throughout the work: from the sliding opening, through the edginess of the Vivace and the plaintive strains of the third movement to the finale, which slips away into the ether, there is no sign of optimism. It is the composer’s mastery of texture that really galvanises the mood of the piece and in this respect one can hear a breadth of imagination that lifts it well above the mundane. The use of glissandi in the first movement and harmonics in the second have a sense of unease about them, a feeling that the Ceruti Ensemble convey with an unsettled energy that suits the music extremely well. It is in the third movement that the playing is at its most impressive, however. Here the expansive melodic lines are allowed to breathe, with a tone and sense of timing that crystallises their mournful character, and draws the listener towards the beautifully eerie atmosphere that ends this movement.

The second quartet, written more than a quarter of a century later, lacks the powerful impact of the first, yet is nevertheless a work of originality and great appeal. In particular, each of the four movements displays contrasting aspects of constructional technique that typify Arnold’s ingenuity. As in many of his other works, some of the movements are broken into sections of differing tempi, a device that here works marvellously in the last, where the driving rhythms and scurrying lines suddenly broaden out into the closing Lento, as if sunshine has finally found a gap in the clouds and floods onto the ground below. These sudden changes of mood within movements are often tricky to bring off successfully in performance, but the players here are obviously well tuned in to the composer’s intentions.

The seeds for both of these works can be heard in the other piece for quartet on the disc, the world premiere of Vita Abundans, which was written when the composer was twenty. Structurally, the short, linked sections – six in total – are bound together through common thematic material which provides sufficient cohesiveness to just about hold back the impression of a series of textural snapshots. Whether this makes the overall shape satisfactory, however, is debatable, and one gets the impression that the composer had not yet successfully managed to master his tendency towards condensed forms. That said, one is struck that Arnold has a clear sense of the textural possibilities the genre offers, something that doubtless spurred him on to write the two larger quartets. In this light, the piece is definitely worth a listen and the performers certainly give it their best shot. From the sultry opening melody, with its quasi-Latin flavours, through to the more manic passages in the second half of the piece, a sense of commitment pervades the playing.

The choice of work to complete the disc offers a contrast, especially through its unusual instrumentation, but also through its character, which is on the whole less troubled. The Quintet contains more of the light-hearted quirkiness that features in much of Arnold’s work, including references to more popular styles of music, found throughout the final movement. The Ceruti Ensemble underplay the cheekiness of this movement somewhat, yet in doing so create a surreal charm reminiscent of Poulenc. The wind players put in superb performances and the quality of recording makes it even preferable to the Nash Ensemble’s excellent reading of this piece (re-released on Hyperion CDH55073).

Anyone who considers Arnold’s music to be frivolous should listen to the quartets played on this disc; free from the features that cause some to dismiss him out of hand they show a composer of doubtless skill, imagination and integrity.
Gavin Meredith