Listening to Malcolm Arnold – some reflections

Yesterday we marked 100 years since the birth of English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, and today I wanted to lift the lid on just a handful of his lesser known orchestral works, which I have been listening to while holidaying in Cornwall – just a few miles from St Merryn, where the composer lived from 1965 to 1972.

The first piece to catch my ear is an early one, however. Arnold wrote the short tone poem Larch Trees in his late teens, when he had just become principal trumpet player for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He introduced it to them in 1943 but it lay unperformed until 1984. It is as evocative as the title implies, a moody piece creating a colourful autumnal atmosphere but finding darker, more craggy harmonies. As it evolves, Arnold reveals the influence of Sibelius on his early musical thoughts, in particular The late masterpiece Tapiola. There are also hints of Moeran in the slower music, and vivid imagery of the wind sighing in the branches of the trees.

In contrast, the Serenade for Small Orchestra is a pocket dynamo of a piece. It’s bright and breezy first movement makes full use of the smaller forces, with impudent humour and a surprisingly big sound from the small forces. Arnold always has melodic interest in this music, and the soft second movement, followed by a brash third, are packed with ideas.

The Clarinet Concerto no.2, written for Benny Goodman in 1974, is also a loud piece at times – but carries a very different message. Infused with jazz, and channeling the spirit of New York, it has a riotous third movement in the form of a rag – The Pre-Goodman Rag, as titled by Arnold. Composer and performers throw caution to the wind here, improvising and revelling in free musical form. The cadenza of the first movement does the same, the clarinet stepping up with a full repertoire of brays and swoons. Just as revealing is the second movement, turning icy cold with its awkward harmonies. As Arnold’s biographer Piers Burton-Page notes, it is revealing of the composer’s increasing creative and ultimately mental turmoil.

The Viola Concerto has made an equally strong impression. It was written in St Merryn, Cornwall, in response to a commission from Roger Best and the Northern Sinfonia. It has a really strong first movement, the soloist ascending from the busy activity of the orchestra with a melody of power and poise. It is difficult not to equate this with the windswept Cornish Coast. The solo instrument retreats a little in the second movement, sharing the stage with some profound thoughts from the orchestra, and then a vibrant finale exchanges quirky ideas and syncopation. It is a fine vehicle for the viola, proving its strength and versatility.

These are just four pieces from an extensive and sadly underperformed body of work. They show off Arnold’s sense of humour and his gift as a tunesmith but also the depth of feeling lying just beneath the surface. He is an enormously approachable composer, and when could be better than his anniversary year to get acquainted with his music?

Happy National Album Day…

Last year saw a very successful first run for National Album Day, where we were all encouraged to listen to our favourite album in full at 3.33pm. (I listened to Radiator by the Super Furry Animals in case you ask!)

The sequel is already here today – the year of Don’t Skip. This is to encourage us back to the idea of listening to a single body of work from one musical source rather than a playlist, and to lengthen our attention spans as we do so.

This return to album-playing first principals, warts and all, may well mean taking in some of those puzzling instrumental interludes or hidden tracks (especially if you like progressive rock like I do!) but equally it will offer the chance to marvel at those tracks buried in albums that were quite clearly singles in waiting.

For lovers of classical music, National Album Day should also be heartily encouraged. The classical album might be more of a movable feast than its pop counterpart, but the same principles apply, and Arcana has decided to humbly offer up a few favourites that fit the album format.

One successful way to produce a classical album is to focus in on the music of a particular country. Even better, you can follow the brief of Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra, focusing on a particular composer in exile or relocated from home. This example is a thoroughly engrossing look at Stravinsky’s time in America. With brilliantly played pieces short and long, serious and humorous, it is an album to which I return often:

English music fits perfectly into this way of thinking too. Recently the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Rumon Gamba have been looking at the world of British Tone Poems for Chandos – and the recently-released second volume is a gem, with works from diverse sources such as Dorothy Howell, Vaughan Williams and John Foulds:

Another point of departure is the inspiration of a particular artist. On this disc from BIS featuring works inspired by the clarinettist Benny Goodman, Martin Fröst revels in the delights of music by Copland, Hindemith and Malcolm Arnold:

Alternatively if you are a classical performer, you can go for works written for your own performance. The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was one of the first artists to carry this one through – and this 1975 combination of concertos for cello and orchestra by Dutilleux and Lutoslawski is a winner:

If you are a singer, you can bring the words into play. Language or poetry can form the inspiration for a record, as it does with this wonderful collection from Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg. La Bonne Chanson was the first record of song I bought, and it stays with me today:

It is interesting to see how newer classical artists have approached the format. Sheku Kanneh-Mason offered something for everyone on Inspiration, his first release, catering for both the newcomer to the cello or the established listener. Either will surely enjoy the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, but also his arrangement of Bob Marley‘s No Woman No Cry:

Finally I offer up two of my own favourite classical albums, both from the ECM label – which celebrates its 50th anniversary next month. The first is composer-themed, an introduction to the haunting sound world of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in definitive performances, including a magical version of Fratres for twelve cellos:

The second is led by organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, and includes a dazzling account of Dance IV by Philip Glass, the culmination of an album including works by Pärt and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Listen and be enthralled:

All that remains is for me to wish you a happy National Album Day, whatever you end up listening to – and if you do, please share them below!

Ben Hogwood