ARNOLD Orchestral Works. Various/Arnold (HMV) – INKPOT
Malcolm ARNOLD (b.1921)
|Phyllis Sellick Cyril Smith pianos
Orchestras of the Bournemouth Symphony, Philharmonia, City of Birmingham and the Royal Philharmonic
conducted by Sir Charles Groves Robert Irving Sir Malcolm Arnold Tam O’ Shanter Overture and A Grand, Grand Overture in mono.
HMV Classics HMV 5 72480-2
|Every now and then, out of the deepest depths of our CD drawers, we re-discover some music that we never realised we had and marvel at how such beautiful music could be left so unnoticed. Such was my joyful re-acquaintance with this budget-priced CD which I had purchased earlier to listen to only one specific track, not realising the obvious musical merits of the others.
The music of English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold (b.1921) is untaintedly tonal, unleashing pure Beethovianesque and Mahlerian torrents of grandiose emotion, that though unfashionable in an age of atonalism and Cagian experimentalism, we secretly revel in. Best known for his many successful film scores like Bridge on the River Kwai and Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Arnold has also received acclaim for his symphonies, overtures, concertos and other orchestral works; some of the best of which are captured on this recording. Arnold is an eclectic, his brand of humour and use of musical “shock tactics” is unabashed, accompanied by top-notch melodies and colourful orchestration characterised by some extremely effective writing for the brass.
One of my all-time favourite orchestral works must be the Peterloo Overture. The derisive name is a reference to an incident at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester 1819, when an orderly crowd of innocents who went to hear a speech on political reform were brutally interrupted by the Yeomanry under the order of magistrates. The overture succeeds almost too vividly to paint a picture of this incident. The violent images that I see in my head as I listen to this music are often of a painfully grand scale like that portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica. In this exhilarating rendition by Sir Malcolm Arnold (right) and the City of Birmingham SO, the piece receives its definitive reading (followed closely by a very recent one by Vernon Handley) by focussing on the dramatic content. I think the crux of the overture is how the same rustic theme in the peaceful opening is transformed, after the musical assault, into a painful, angst-ridden dirge. In this performance, the effect is heart-wrenching.
Tam O’Shanter is a “fantasy overture” depicting “the wild night ride of Robert Burns’s (Scottish) hero, a rascal with much in common with Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. The ‘Scotticisms’ of bagpipe imitation and traditional Scottish tunes are much more obvious then in the Four Scottish Dances, also on this disc. Here Sir Arnold’s humour and sense of fun shines, as he playfully manoeveurs through chromatic tonalities and moods – from the eerie opening to the suddenly amusing and silly-sounding trombone solo. He generates tension through the running passages in the strings and winds with the percussion, resolving all with a grand, march-like ‘bagpipe band’.
The Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir Arnold’s direction presents each musical idea distinctly with only a small amount of uncertainty in some of the connecting passages. Arnold’s brilliant orchestration is clearly evident with the orchestral brass performing extremely well.
If you like Arnold’s brand of humour, then you will also enjoy his A Grand, Grand Overture, composed for the 1956 Hoffnung Festival, a one-night music festival dedicated to “funny” music. In this “Grand” overture, Arnold employs three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher, rifle shots and assorted percussion instruments. The piece culminates in final mayhem, and Arnold quotes the “1812 Overture” after which the rifles ‘silence’ the vacuum cleaners one by one! A triumph indeed for music. And yes, I must mention that memorable melody which must rank among Arnold’s best, perhaps a cheekily used one-off musical joke. Watch out for the four fffff rifle shots in the opening section! While the almost inaudible vacuum cleaners tempt you to turn up the volume, do not! The rifle shots are deafening! Part of the joke? It’s not funny when you have the music plugged into your ears!
Arnold is also well-known for his two sets of English Dances and Scottish Dances, each a suite of four dance pieces. They were to be companion pieces to Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, or perhaps even Brahm’s Hungarian Dances. The early English Dances are more directly appealing while the Scottish Dances are more subtle and interesting though equally simple. I think that the music is more memorable for its tuneful nature rather than its dance character – Arnold is a tunesmith and a brilliant orchestrator.
This light music is not particularly fascinating, but it already hints of the composer’s experimentation with occasional slips into other tonalities, an apparent characteristic in his later music. Sir Charles Groves captures the feel of the Dances very well, and delivers a smooth performance. Almost too smooth, in the sense that it is hardly inspiring and would pass as muzak unless you’re intent on listening. But perhaps that’s the nature of this light music in the first place.
The remarkable Concerto for Two Pianos (3 hands), op.104 is dedicated to an equally remarkable person, Cyril Smith, who lost the use of his left hand as a result of pressure problems in an aircraft, but continued to perform as a concert pianist in partnership with his wife. Before Arnold, Sir Arthur Bliss and Gordon Jacob had also written music for this unique duo.
Arnold’s response to the challenge of writing a ‘3-hand’ concerto involving ‘pop’ and jazz elements, with an immediate appeal which resulted in the encore it received at its Proms premiere in 1969. The music begins with a forceful orchestral tutti, with heavy percussion and fanfares for the brass. The instrumental forces employed are enormous, with an emphasis given to a full complement of brass instruments, harps, gongs, tubular bells and what not. Piers Burton Page, in his notes to the music, observes that “the presence of the two right hands cunningly ensures that the high register of the piano cuts through the fiercely discordant (and thick) textures of the orchestra”. Perhaps this was one of Arnold’s ways of depicting Smith’s triumph over disadvantage.
On that same vein, the passionate return of the theme at the end of the slow second movement is another prized moment, when the depth of the artist’s determination and love soars above all. The piece is here recorded by the dedicatees themselves, and needless to say, they contribute tremendous emotional content to the music. I’ve heard this concerto recorded on Conifer Classics conducted by Vernon Handley, performed by David Nettle and Richard Markham. Though the recording there is much better, the performance and interpretive aspects pale by far. I highly recommend this much more meaningful rendition, performed by the ones who inspired and conceived it.
The only pity in this album is that some of the transfers are not of very high quality, but for the price you pay and the inherent musicality of the performances, this is a small sacrifice.
Highly recommended as an introduction to Sir Arnold, who ranks amongst the most highly respected composers of our times. Sir Arnold might just single-handedly take on all your pre-conceptions of what it means to be an “English” composer. Assuredly, unless you are as absent-minded as I am, this is not one of those discs that will stay at the bottom of your drawer.
ADRIAN TAN doesn’t keep CDs in drawers, it’s just a figure of speech, ok?
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439: 24.3.1999 Adrian Tan
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