Commonwealth Christmas Overture Op.64 (1957)
Clarinet Concerto no.1 Op.20 (1948)
Divertimento no.2 Op.24 / Op.75 (1950)
Larch Trees Op.3 (1943)
Philharmonic Concerto Op.120 (1976)
The Padstow Lifeboat Op.94a (arranged for orchestra by Philip Lane)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba
Chandos CHAN20152 [68’50″’]
Producers Brian Pidgeon and Mike George Engineers Stephen Rinker, Richard Hannaford and John Cole
Recorded 5 & 6 December 2019, 29 July at MediaCity UK, Salford
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
This collection of six pieces from Sir Malcolm Arnold’s composing career stretches from one of his first published pieces, Larch Trees, to one of his last, the Philharmonic Concerto. Both were written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom he played trumpet from 1941 until 1948, and with whom he maintained a close association as a composer.
In between these pieces Chandos have chosen a satisfying mix of styles to reveal Arnold as a multi-faceted composer, not just the humourous one of which we hear most. That side of his writing is happily celebrated through The Padstow Lifeboat and the Divertimento no.2 for orchestra reveals the happiness he found through writing for children and young people, being young at heart himself.
The Commonwealth Christmas Overture finds Arnold in commission mode, called upon to write the music for Royal Prologue: Crown and Commonwealth, a programme narrated by Sir Laurence Oliver to preface the 25th Christmas speech by a ruling monarch. Completing the collection is the first of many concertos from Arnold’s pen, and the first of two for clarinet.
What’s the music like?
Chandos have already presented us with a good deal of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music, and this is further enhanced by a programme giving us first recordings and revealing each side of the composer’s personality.
The Commonwealth Christmas Overture gets proceedings off to a suitably ceremonial start, with plenty of bluster and high jinks, all buoyed by colourful percussion. The influence of William Walton is immediately evident, for the main theme has more than a little in common with his own ceremonial march Crown Imperial, but Arnold goes on to develop it in his own inimitable way.
The Clarinet Concerto is a compact piece, deft and slightly bluesy in the outer movements but pausing for meaningful reflection in the Andante, the emotional centre of the work.
The Second Divertimento, long thought lost, is a fun piece where a lot happens in nine minutes! Using a traditional-sounding structure, Arnold has a lot of fun with the bracing Fanfare, atmospheric Nocturne and grand Chaconne, harnessing the power of the large orchestra.
The two pieces for the London Philharmonic are next, and are vividly contrasting pieces of work. Larch Trees is an evocative musical sketch, reminiscent of Moeran in the way it pans out over the rugged terrain of northern England, while also confiding intimately in its listeners through the woodwind. The Philharmonic Concerto is more obviously noisy and confrontational, this late work utilising the dissonance which will be noted by those familiar with Arnold’s later symphonies. This is not comfortable music but it is brilliantly written, challenging the orchestra to throw off their shackles. The probing violin lines of the Aria offer a chance for deeper reflection.
Finally The Padstow Lifeboat, one of Arnold’s brass band treasures, with its persistent ‘wrong note’ which warns all shipping. It makes for the ideal sign-off.
Does it all work?
Yes, and wonderfully so. Rumon Gamba has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Arnold’s music and comes up trumps here, leading the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in some characterful and personal accounts. Arnold could hardly wish for better advocacy and understanding, the conductor charting his youthful prowess in Larch Trees, whose softer contours benefit from excellent recording by the Chandos engineers.
The Clarinet Concerto no.1 is brilliantly played by Michael Collins, negotiating the wide leaps of the solo part with aplomb, while responding with grace in the soulful slower sections. The strings of the BBC Philharmonic exploit the depths of the darker slow movement, its temperature appreciably colder by the end.
Is it recommended?
Enthusiastically. This is an anthology that will appeal to seasoned Arnold listeners, for its mix of the familiar and a curio or two, while it is also the ideal place for those new to the composer. If you are after some music to combat the onset of January, you have come to the right place!
For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website