On Record – Michael Collins, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba – Arnold: Clarinet Concerto no.1, Philharmonic Concerto etc (Chandos)

Arnold
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!

Listen

Buy

For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website

On record – Arnold: Symphony no.9 & Grand Concerto Gastronomique (Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons) (Toccata Classics)

toccata-arnold

Malcolm Arnold
Grand Concerto Gastronomique Op.76 (1961)
Symphony no.9 in D Op.128 (1986)

Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie (soprano, Concerto), Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

Toccata Classics TOCC0613 [57’30”]

Producer Normands Slāva
Engineer Jānis Straume

Recorded 14-16 June 2021 at Great Concert Hall, Liepāja

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics marks the centenary of Malcolm Arnold’s birth (falling on October 21st) in a pertinent coupling of his final symphonic statement with music finding this composer at his most irreverent and, by so doing, juxtaposes the two sides of his creativity to startling effect.

What’s the music like?

It was the compositional hiatus resulting from emotional breakdown then tortuous recovery as provided the catalyst for the Ninth Symphony, whose superficial simplicity belies the anguish beneath its surface. John Gibbons (who had earlier conducted this work in London, as part of a nine-year Arnold cycle, and Northampton) brings tangible expectancy to the opening Vivace, its arresting initial gestures soon revealing that textural starkness which goes on to define the whole work, with a circuitous evolution even more marked in the Allegretto – an intermezzo whose wistful theme effects less a series of variations than poignant searching for formal and expressive closure. The ensuing Giubiloso is more overtly a scherzo with its headlong motion or trenchant exchanges between wind and strings, yet even here a curious detachment prevails.

Arnold’s eight previous symphonies each concluded in a relatively short and decisive finale, but the Ninth’s final Lento proves anything but – its sustained slowness abetted by restrained dynamics and a sparseness of detail which could have made for unrelieved gloom were it not for those myriad ‘shades of grey’ the composer draws from his reduced palette. An additional factor is Gibbons’s pulse for this movement as a tactus (one-second) rather than crotchet beat, leading to a traversal several minutes less than earlier recordings by Andrew Penny (Naxos), Vernon Handley (BMG) or Rumon Gamba (Chandos) and, as a result, making the cadential chord one of benediction than resignation. Whether or not this approach convinces depends on how one views the symphony overall, but there can be no doubting its sincerity of intent.

Composed for the Astronautical Music Festival – the last of several events inspired by Gerard HoffnungGrand Concerto Gastronomique is Arnold at his most uproarious. Its designation ‘for Eater, Waiter Food and Large Orchestra’ betrays a visual aspect not essential for enjoying this 15-minute consumption of Brown Windsor soup, roast beef, cheese, Peach Melba – with a sensuous cameo by soprano Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie – then coffee with brandy; framed by a Prologue and Epilogue of due portentousness, but thankfully no ‘Mr Creosote’ in evidence.

Does it all work?

As a coupling, yes. As to content, the Ninth Symphony will likely always divide opinion as to whether it is what Arnold intended or merely the best that he was able to achieve after the traumas of the preceding decade, but no-one could accuse Gibbons of realizing it as other than a cohesive entity whose formal proportions are as precisely judged as its expressive trajectory is purposefully conveyed. Listeners not convinced by those earlier recordings should certainly hear this new account, lucidly and persuasively rendered by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra.

Is it recommended?

Yes, enhanced by thought-provoking booklet notes from Timothy Bowers along with realistic sound. Should still-missing orchestral pieces by Arnold (notably the Op. 1 First Divertimento or the Op. 12 Symphonic Suite) come to light, Gibbons will hopefully be asked to record them.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. You can read more about the Malcolm Arnold society at their website, while for more on each of the performers, click on the names Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and John Gibbons

On record – Peter Fisher & Margaret Fingerhut: Malcolm Arnold – A Centenary Celebration (Somm Recordings)

arnold-centenary

Malcolm Arnold
Violin Sonata no.1 Op.15 (1947)
Violin Sonata no.2 Op.43 (1953)
English Dances (arr. Harris) – Set 1 Op.27 (1950): nos.1 & 3; Set 2 Op.33 (1951): nos.1-3
4 Scottish Dances (arr. Gedge) Op.57 (1957)
5 Pieces Op.84 (1965)
Miscellaneous Pieces (all arr. Poulton): Hobson’s Choice – Suite (1954); Solitaire – Sarabande (1956); Trapeze – Lola’s Theme (1956); The Chalk Garden – Madrigal (1964); Thème pour mon Amis (1965, rev 1985)

Peter Fisher (violin), Margaret Fingerhut (piano)

SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0640 [69’03”]

Producer / Engineer Michael Ponder

Recorded 21 November and 4 December 2020 at Henry Wood Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

SOMM Recordings marks the centenary of the birth of Malcolm Arnold with this collection of his music for violin and piano, including a number of arrangements as are here receiving their first recordings, in what is an (unexpectedly?) wide-ranging overview of his creativity.

What’s the music like?

The three original pieces find Arnold gradually evolving a distinctive personality. If his First Sonata is indebted in many aspects to Bartók or Shostakovich, the tensile expressive contrasts of its opening Allegretto then the plaintive melancholy giving rise to wrenching anguish of its central Andante posits an emotional disjunction that the final Allegro’s stealthy tarantella can only waylay prior to a scabrous close. Its tensile single movement unique in Arnold’s output, the Second Sonata unfolds as oblique variations on a pensive theme whose speculative final guise implies much more than is being said. Playable separately, the Five Pieces (for Yehudi Menuhin) is a cannily integrated sequence that moves from an acerbic Prelude, via an edgy Aubade and a bittersweet Waltz, to an impassioned Ballad then a jazzy Moto perpetuo.

The arrangements from Arnold’s sets of dances provide ready-made encores. David Gedge’s take on the Scottish Dances is wholly idiomatic – hence the strutting gait of the Pesante with its ‘Scotch snap’, careering toward inebriation of the Vivace, wistful naivety of the Allegretto and whirling energy of the final Con brio. The English Dances selected by Paul Harris makes for a viable collection as it moves from the insouciant Op.33/2 and wistful Op.27/1, via the melancholic Op.27/3 and ruminative Op. 33/2, to the resolute Op.33/1.

The miscellaneous arrangements were all done by Alan Poulton – who, as Arnold’s manager during the 1980s, played a vital role in his rehabilitation as a composer. One of two specially written additions for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Solitaire, Sarabande is a mellifluous gem – as, in its rather more sensuous way, is Lola’s Theme from Carol Reed’s film Trapeze. Nor is a ‘Suite’ derived from David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice found wanting as a breviary of this inimitable film (Arnold’s favourite from his more than 120 scores), and the suave Madrigal from Ronald Neame’s The Chalk Garden gives no hint of that film’s ominous subject-matter. Conceived as a jingle for Player’s cigarettes then refitted for BBC2’s My Music series, Thème pour mon Amis is a delightful jeu d’esprit with which to recall this much-missed personality.

Does it all work?

Yes – given that Arnold, a professional trumpeter and skilled composer for brass, had ‘across the board’ mastery of instruments such that his writing for strings is hardly less idiomatic, as is witnessed by the original pieces. The arrangements should not be regarded as mere pièces d’occasion, given that these include several of Arnold’s most appealing melodic ideas and are worthwhile recital additions. The performances by Peter Fisher and Margaret Fingerhut, both long-time advocates of British music, could hardly be improved on for sensitivity and insight.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is well-nigh ideal in terms of the balance between these instruments, with Alan Poulton’s booklet notes highly readable and informative, though note the correct running-order of the English Dances as discussed above. Great booklet-cover artwork too!

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the SOMM Recordings website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more information on the Malcolm Arnold society, click here – and for more on the artists, click here for Peter Fisher and here for Margaret Fingerhut.

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?

Malcolm Arnold at 100 – The Padstow Lifeboat

written by Ben Hogwood

Today marks 100 years since the birthday of English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold.

Arnold has always had a chequered relationship with the concert-going and record-buying public. He was too often seen as a vulgar composer, or someone who couldn’t resist a musical prank, which his work with Deep Purple, in the Concerto for Group and Orchestra of 1969, and his involvement in the Gerard Hoffnung concerts did little to dispel. Writing a piece that included parts for three vacuum cleaners (A Grand, Grand Overture) was a bridge too far for some. His personality is often cited too, for Arnold – who suffered consistently from poor mental health – gained a bad reputation amid his struggles with alcohol and financial problems.

Yet beneath the humour beat a deeply caring musical heart that revealed itself in a myriad of different compositions. The nine symphonies speak with power and concentrated thought of his struggles, and though many still lie dormant the success of the Fifth at the BBC Proms this year said much for the musical quality in the mind behind it.

Arnold mastered many forms, writing concertos for most of the principal orchestral instruments, chamber music that is still all too rarely heard, and stage works that are only just being properly discovered. The Dancing Master, winner of a BBC Music Magazine award this year thanks to a recent recording on Resonus, is testament to that, while the film music has started to get its due reward. The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Hobson’s Choice are all fine scores.

Since I am writing this from holiday in Cornwall, I have chosen to focus on some of the pieces Arnold wrote in his time living at St Merryn. The first one is a light-hearted treasure, The Padstow Lifeboat – with a striking written-out part intended to include the foghorn.

The piece was written in 1967 to commemorate the lifeboat’s inauguration, with Arnold still discovering more local musical appeal having not long moved from London. Due in part to the success of the piece, it was not long before he was made Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1968. It is a lively, humourous march that can’t help but raise a smile!