'The playing of the various members of the Nash Ensemble is impeccable, as indeed is the recording' (Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
Those who habitually think of Malcolm Arnold as the composer of lighthearted and tuneful entertainment works may be surprised by the range of styles, moods and forms in the chamber works on this CD, and by the very different footings on which instrumental partnerships are established. In the early violin and viola sonatas, energetic and uncompromising characters converse sometimes passionately, sometimes abrasively, holding to their opinions in spiky counterpoints and harsh dissonances, while emotional programmes are as irregular and unpredictable as structural forms. In the Second Violin Sonata the relationship has changed; the violin is the active, initiating partner, while the piano tends to play a quietly subversive role, questioning the harmonic implications of the violin’s more lyrical themes. In many movements, the piano is straightforwardly ‘in support’, providing suitably patterned backgrounds for song-like themes. But partners may also meet on level terms. In the Cello Duo, the players amicably take turns with tunes and accompaniments; in the Piano Trio, strings and piano renounce something of their habitual characters and discover new ones in seeking out common ground.
Several movements are cast in simple ABA forms; but among these works you will also find a passacaglia which moves up a semitone at each entry until it has covered all twelve degrees of the scale, and a movement based on canon and inverted canon (both in the Trio). In the first movement of the Viola Sonata, A-sections are constructed as free canons, instruments following on at eight-bar intervals with identical melodic material. The Second Violin Sonata is in cyclic form; in the first movement of the First Violin Sonata themes undergo perpetual transformation but are never recapitulated, while there are two self-contained and thematically unconnected episodes.
The four short movements of the Second Violin Sonata (composed in 1953) run through without a break. The violin hesitantly embarks on a song-like theme but the piano withholds the implied harmonies (the first notes of this theme form an idée fixe which appears in a new transformation in each movement). After fierce semitonal strife, the opening theme is resumed, the piano still casting doubt on the tonality. The idée fixe reappears in a stormy scherzando, and again in the wistful, waltz-like third movement. After a ferocious interruption the song is resumed, leading into an Adagio molto 4/4 in which the original theme reappears in a broad legato version, harmonic ambiguities at last resolved in the final bars.
The Five Pieces were written in 1964 for Yehudi Menuhin to play as encores on an American tour, and reflect both his musical character and the breadth of his musical interests. The ‘Prelude’ opens flamboyantly with a fine violinistic flourish rising from the G string to the heights, while the piano supplies a vigorous counter-theme. The violin meditates briefly on the lyrical potential of the opening figure before the twinned themes return. The ‘Aubade’, unlike most of its dreamy species, is a light-footed scherzo freely based on an Indian raga and characterized by flattened second and raised fourth degrees. There is a touch of parody in the tiny ‘Waltz’ with its neatly turned gestures, soulful chromaticisms and deux temps rhythms, but none in the ‘Ballad’: a sustained and expressive violin melody repeated note-for-note over plain and expectable syncopated harmonies (the tune itself is not really so simple—note the minor-third internal echoes and the unusual six-plus-eight bar structure). The last piece pays tribute to the art of Charlie Parker—not with the unstaunchable flow of semiquavers of the conventional moto perpetuo but with a slippery, eel-like tune which contradicts the pounding bass beat with its cross-rhythms and syncopations and finally explodes in a firework burst of cadential flourishes.
In the opening section of the Viola Sonata themes initiated by the viola and imitated by the piano become increasingly more agitated and fragmented, building up to a powerful fortissimo climax. Fresh material appears in the rhetorical middle section, which leads to a sombre Adagio (mysterious glissandos in artificial harmonics and pizzicato for viola) and a shortened recapitulation. In the second movement the viola sings quietly in upper registers and more sonorously on the lower strings, the meditative, forlorn aspects of its character perfectly caught in the music. The finale opens with a furious outburst of scales and repeated-note figures, but forward movement is momentarily halted by a fragment of a ghostly march. Viola and piano return to the fray; the pace slackens, and the viola remembers first-movement mysteries in a brooding adagio before the final prestissimo brings reminiscences to an abrupt end.
The First Violin Sonata dates from 1947 and was first performed by Nona Liddell and Daphne Ibbott. Violin and piano simultaneously announce two energetic and wide-ranging themes which are fragmented to provide most of the material for the first movement. A figure in rocking thirds (which remains the piano’s exclusive property) and a three-note gruppetto motif also play important parts in later developments, while two short episodes (‘staccato a pizzicato’) provide respite from the contrapuntal debate. In the second movement the violin’s tranquil cantabile is abruptly interrupted by one of the most violent and dissonant passages Arnold has ever written, after which the original theme is quietly resumed as if the calamity had never been. In the finale the arpeggios of the violin’s first lively and brilliant theme are taken up by both instruments (roles are freely exchanged in later developments). A more sententious theme for the violin in double-stopping is repeated by the piano, then hustled out of the way to make only furtive and fragmentary appearances thereafter. After much animated dialogue a tarantella-like rhythm invades the music. The instruments dispute the tonality fiercely, but at the last moment agree on a final unison B flat.
In 1964 I asked Arnold for a simple cello duet of a length to fill a double spread in a teaching book which I was writing with Anna Shuttleworth. In a matter of weeks the Duo for two cellos dropped through the letterbox: tuneful, cunningly laid out for players of limited technique, of exactly the hoped-for length. Materials are simple: a lyrical motif based on thirds; another of Arnold’s favoured rocking figures; contrasts of bowed and plucked notes and a hint of bitonality. A small but perfectly proportioned piece, with not a note nor a bar too many nor too few.
The main themes of the first movement of the Piano Trio (first performed by the St Cecilia Trio in 1956) are grave and song-like; but first, violin and cello demand attention with a rhetorical unison, the piano appending three distinct comments which are to play important roles later in the movement. In the central movement, the violin follows the cello in a two-part canon, the piano responding with a consoling sequential phrase, and the process repeats in inversion. The emotional temperature rises in a more richly scored middle section, falls again as the canon is resumed. The seven-bar opening unison of the last movement establishes the harmonic basis for the eleven variations which follow. Variations 3, 4 and 5 form a triple variation in which piano, violin and cello in turn carry forward the semiquaver movement; 7 and 8, a double canonic variation. A brief but weighty coda brings the Trio to an end conclusively and without unnecessary ceremony.
Hugo Cole © 1988