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.
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.
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'.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
TAN doesn't keep CDs in drawers, it's just a figure of speech,
If you wish to
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