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S&H Recital review

Review 2: Malcolm Arnold at 80, Wigmore Hall, 23rd October 2001 (JF)


It has long been a canon of Malcolm Arnold scholarship that he can be approached in two ways: the symphonies or the 'light' music. I have always had some problems with this approach - even as a rule of thumb. It seemed too simplistic. After the concert at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 22nd October I think perhaps appreciation can be resolved into a triangle - symphonies, 'light' music and chamber works.

I would imagine that the chamber works of Malcolm Arnold are amongst the least well known of his catalogue. However, since Hyperion Records issued the complete chamber works on CD in the mid 1980's (since re-issued as a part of the 80th birthday celebration) we have been in a position to come to an understanding of much that has been hidden from view. The chamber works are a major contribution to a number of instrumental combinations and have been written over much of the composer's life. Many were written for personal friends. Every aspect of Arnold's multi-faceted art can be seen in these works.

The first instalment of the Wigmore Hall' s Birthday celebrations well proved that Arnold enthusiasts need to reappraise the chamber corpus. Each work was well played and well received.

Prior to the concert was an excellent and candid presentation about Sir Malcolm's life and music. In the chair was Piers Burton-Page - he was in discussion with the venerable John Amis, a long time friend of Arnold. Burton-Page kept the event on track and allowed the fifty strong audience to hear short extracts from Arnold's works and a number of interesting snippets of the composer in conversation. The discussion was candid and did not gloss the sadder side of the composer's life. Much was made of the exploitation of British composers by the film industry. Alwyn, Walton and Arnold all wrote cinema music under great timescale pressure. John Amis suggested that Malcolm Arnold's neglect by both the public and the broadcasters was due to a perception of Arnold being frivolous. He cited the blatant use of Caribbean folk instruments in the 4th symphony. It is perhaps difficult for the public to balance the Hoffnung pieces and the opening of the 7th symphony. And this difficulty led to his music being placed on the too-hard pile.

All the soloists were committed to making this a fine Birthday present to the octogenarian composer who was present in the hall. It would be unfair to pick out any soloist for special mention. However, one must give huge praise to Richard Shaw at the piano; he was on the platform for three-quarters of the entire performance.

The concert opened with a good performance of the 2nd Violin sonata Op.43, written in 1953. This is a single movement piece that has all the freshness of an improvisation. There is a lovely, typically Arnoldian tune that seems to haunt the entire piece. This work ought to be a favourite with both soloists and audiences alike; for me the work is too short, I want more!

The great lieder singer Ian Partridge gave a convincing performance of some Arnold songs. The first four were from an early cycle of poems by Humbert Woolfe (1865-1940) called Songs from Kensington Garden. These are truly lovely examples of the perfect fusion obtainable between music and poetry. There is a bloom about these early pieces which shews great promise. Perhaps Woolfe's words sum up these four songs - 'A summer's day weighs imminent/Upon the spirit entranced goes.' They were composed as an exercise whilst Arnold was at the RCM during 1938. The second and last songs have a feel of Britten's Winter Words about them. The song 'Tulip' was composed on the day that Ian Partridge was born. A neat coincidence.

The setting of John Donne's words 'The Good morrow' again has echoes of Britten. The Two Songs Op.8 (1947) are stunning. They need to be in the repertoire, especially the setting of 'Morning Moon'. The accompaniment has all the attributes of a smoky night at Ronnie Scotts.

The Viola Sonata Op.17 (1947) is an altogether darker work. Nothing of the Arnoldesque whimsy here. Although the darkness is saved by a typically lovely big tune, with an almost 'pop' feel to it. There are some strange sound effects for the soloist to trip up on. This is a complex work that is likely to remain known only to the enthusiast. I wondered at times about the intonation - there seemed to me to be something slightly adrift here.

The last work before the interval, the Piano Trio Op.54 (1956) was a minor revelation. Of course I have heard it on disc. But this performance from three committed players brought the piece to life. This is a masterpiece of the chamber music composer's art. It has everything; it is a work of contrasts. Good tunes and splendid passage work abound. The haunting second movement remains in the memory for a long time.

The second half opened with my own personal favourite piece of Malcolm Arnold's chamber music - the Divertimento for Flute, Oboe & Clarinet Op.37 (1952). This is a series of six character pieces or perhaps bagatelles. The beauty of this piece is the unity of these seemingly contrasting miniatures. No doubt very humorous, these pieces have a degree of deeper thought about them, which belies first hearing. It is one of those works where we are left wishing they would go on so much longer! The first few bars of the first movement have the 'English Dance' imprint well and truly in place. It was well played by the three soloists.

The Flute Sonata Opus 121(1977) was perhaps the highlight of the concert. The soloist seemed to be visibly exhausted after the sheer effort of giving a fine performance of this work. James Galway, for whom it was composed, gave the first performance in Cardiff, but was apparently unimpressed by the work. Arnold was conscious that much twentieth century flute music was of the 'fantasy' variety. He resolved to write a sonata to redress the balance. However, this is not a classical piece - it leans more towards early romantic and Weber. We are conscious of a struggle between soloist and accompanist - with the soloist being in the ascendancy. This is quite definitely a virtuosic piece. There are 'cool' parts to this sonata - the second subject of the first movement harks back to the Flute Sonatina Op.19 1948, as does the last movement. It may be politically incorrect to notice the soloist's dress - but it was simply stunning!

The short Duo for Two Cellos Op.85 (1965) was composed for a book of studies for young cellists. It is a well-balanced piece that is even-handed in complexity between the two soloists. Each has a vital part to play. This is no teacher/pupil piece. The nice coincidence was that the cellist Paul Watkins had used this very book whilst learning to play the cello. The Arnold piece was the culmination of much study at the time. So it was a nice opportunity to play a piece that had captured his imagination many years in the past. Louisa Tuck was an able partner in this lovely miniature.

The concert closed with a wonderful arrangement of music from the film score 'Hobson's Choice' (1953) for Piano Trio. It was re-scored from the original orchestral version by the American composer Leslie Hogan. This piece is just great fun. All the charm of the original score has been captured for this 'palm court' orchestra. Even the slides on the trombone! It was an inspired choice to close this concert. However, I glanced at the audience and most seemed to be listening with long faces. Only a few seemed to be smiling at the outrageous humour of this work. Perhaps this is a lesson for all of us.

The concert closed with a standing ovation for the man himself. He was ushered to the front of the hall where he quietly received the applause. It was moving to see this man who has contributed so much to the world of English music being appreciated by so many people. It seems unbelievable that he suffered such critical disdain for such a large part of his life. Yet perhaps this eightieth birthday is the time to build a new appreciation of all the facets of this great composer - the symphonies, of course, the light, fun stuff and the chamber works.

John France.

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