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S&H Recital review

Review 3: Malcolm Arnold at 80, Wigmore Hall, 25th October 2001 (JF)

 

The opening piece in tonight's programme was the 'Three Shanties for Wind Quintet' Op.4 (1943) These are the most popular of Arnold's chamber output. They were originally designed for the amusement of the composer's colleagues in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Cunningly scored for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn & Bassoon, these three 'bagatelles' exhibit all the characteristics of exuberance, inventiveness and sheer technical competence that we have come to expect from Sir Malcolm. We must never forget that he was a former instrumentalist himself. Famous tunes abound in various guises. 'What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor,' 'Boney was a Warrior' and 'Johnny came down to Hilo.' The tunes are not repeated and repeated again louder (à la Constant Lambert) but are subject to all kinds of variation and distortions. There is an ongoing shift of moods and timbres and this was reflected in the playing. In many ways this early Arnold is the 'type' for much of his 'popular' repertoire that was to infuriate and entrance so many people. In the last movement the humour does come through; the ending certainly made me smile. The Opus 4 was played by the Galliard Ensemble who did a good job of getting the concert off to a fine start.

The Oboe Sonatina Op.28 (1952) is a somewhat disingenuous title for this piece. The word 'sonatina' has come to mean a small, inconsequential piece associated with teaching. Of course there are many examples where this rule of thumb is proved false. For example, think of Maurice Ravel and John Ireland's works of that name works for piano. There is nothing inconsequential about the work we heard tonight. Let us just agree with the programme notes and say this piece sounds like 'a full-bodied sonata in miniature.' It is full of good things. The tunes are lyrical and well crafted; there is a contrast of musical styles. All the 'Arnoldian' fingerprints are present. The piano part is complex and certainly adds more than just accompaniment to this piece. The work is said to have been inspired by the playing of the famous oboist, Leon Goossens.

This piece was superbly played by the charismatic Nicholas Daniel supported by Richard Shaw. Daniel appeared on the stage in a faintly ridiculous caftan. It was as if he was about to charm a snake out of a basket in a bazaar straight out of Scheherazade. However, he charmed the audience with his playing.

There are comparatively few attractive post baroque pieces for oboe and piano. Let us hope that a few more woodwind soloists take up this delightful sonatina.

We were privileged to be present for the 'London Premiere of a short 'waltz' from the Suite Bourgeoisie (1940). It is scored for flute, oboe and piano. I have not heard any of this suite so tonight's performance was a rare pleasure. It was written when Malcolm Arnold was only nineteen years old; it was probably premiered in Northampton Town Hall in 1940. On Tuesday we were able to detect some emerging characteristics in the 'Kensington Garden' songs and here in this work we are also able to discern hints of the style to come. There are some lovely counterpoints between the solo instruments. It is Sir Malcolm at his very best. As someone said to me at the interval - "Arnold in a nutshell!" The playing of this 'light' piece was committed - it would have been so easy to make fun of it.

We heard three of the Fantasies Op.87, 89 & 90 for solo instrument- for Clarinet, Oboe and Flute. These pieces were originally composed for the Birmingham International Wind Competition in 1966. Of course, giving the commission to Sir Malcolm was an inspired choice. It reveals the facility the composer had of writing music that was appropriate not only to the didactic requirement but was also musically attractive. These pieces tested the players' ability to negotiate a number of styles. We hear passage work, changes of register, neat and accurate articulation appropriate to the instrument, melodies and complex scales and arpeggios. All of these fantasies are fragmentary, involved pieces that seem to defy formal analysis. Yet somehow they work, and work well. One can only marvel at the skill of both the composer and players in producing such attractive pieces that have a musical coherence. 'Fantasies' they may be, but each one of them has profound musical logic. We note that one of the original prize-winners was a certain Mr James Galway! Furthermore, they were so successful that Arnold produced a further three settings in 1969 - for Trumpet, Trombone and Tuba.

Tonight’s performances certainly managed to show these three pieces in an exceptional light. The energy of the Oboe piece with Nicolas Daniel was amazing. Barnaby Robson made sure that every possible trick of the clarinet was exploited to the full. And one wondered how the flautist, Sebastian Bell, fitted in all the notes!

Perhaps the most vital piece played at the two concerts was the String Quartet No.2 Op.118 (1975). This was composed during Arnold's Dublin period, which by all accounts was the most depressing and soul-destroying part of his career. There is little of the typical Arnold sound; here we find no catchy tunes or popular rhythms. However one of Arnold's characteristics is present - his tendency to write eclectic music. Much of this quartet is unrelated to itself. It seems to me to lack internal unity. It is certainly not cyclic. This piece is dark, bleak and almost totally negative in its feelings. Often there is a downright sinister feel to much of this music. This is not to say that there are no tender moments. The last few bars of the first movement ease the stress a bit. The slow movement has a long cadenza for the 1st violin. Then we find an Irish jig juxtaposed against aggressive bi-tonal part writing. This is very much the a 'movement from hell.' The slow movement is 'dead' sombre - no relief yet from the intensity of this quartet. Yet it is very beautiful in a strange sort of way. It is fair to say that in the conclusion of this work we can see light at the end of the tunnel. Some of this writing is almost ‘summery’ in comparison to what has gone before. The last statement of the 'big' theme is glorious. However the last pages of this quartet return to the bleakness of the opening.

This was superbly played by the Maggini String Quartet. Every detail of this impressive music was expressed with conviction and understanding. On a lighter note, the quartet wore identical waistcoats that added a touch of colour to this memorable evening. Sir Malcolm Arnold's 2nd String Quartet is one of the masterworks of the genre. It is on a par with Bartok. This work needs to become a regular part of the repertoire as a matter of urgency.

The Fanfare for Louis was composed in 1970. It is a short piece for two trumpets, which in the Wigmore Hall acoustic was ear splitting! It was originally composed for Louis Armstrong's 70th birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall. It is an unusual piece, which is not necessarily 'jazzy', as its provenance would suggest. I must confess that it is an ephemeral piece that I do not need to hear again. It was a difficult piece well played.

 

The Clarinet Sonatina Op.29 (1951) is one of my favourite works by Sir Malcolm. The programme notes suggest that this piece is like a piano reduction of a concerto! Certainly we feel that there is much more to this work than can be encompassed in the typical view of a sonatina. There is so much happening in this work. Arnold uses every conceivable technique in the clarinettist's book. We hear all the registers being used to full effect. There is brightness, brilliance and good old-fashioned swagger. Yet the slow movement is quiet. In many ways it acts as a foil for the two almost outrageous outer movements. This is great stuff. It was performed with total conviction and understanding by both the soloist, Barnaby Robson and the accompanist Richard Shaw.

However, the gem of the night was the Grand Fantasia Op.973 (c1940), scored for flute, trumpet and piano. This is an odd combination, yet the sound it made was very much akin to 'Victorian' music-making around the fireside. It was total fun, total enjoyment and totally unique. A one off! It is effectively a set of little variations, which always seems about to go into a tune I know but never quite does. The trumpet player, Mark Law has a deal of charisma. His playing was stunning; his use of the various mutes was fascinating. It was a rare treat. The score is inscribed as having been composed by a certain ‘Mr. Youngman’.

The Quintet for Brass Op.73 (1961) was an excellent choice with which to conclude the concert. It is scored for two trumpets, French horn, trombone and tuba. The movements are quite well balanced - with fun, not so much fun and back to fun again. Here Arnold is composing for his own family of instruments. And it shows. Every instrument is given the opportunity to show off - both as solo and in combination with their other partners. The last movement is a characteristic rondo that brings the work to an excellent conclusion. This was well played by the London City Brass Quintet. They got the intonation and the tempi absolutely correct. This is a great brass sound. The Tuba part was particularly gratifying.

 

The great formal event of the evening was the presentation to Sir Malcolm Arnold of a 'Fellowship' to the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. The award was handed over by Sir Tim Rice. There are only two other fellows in the society - John Barry the film music writer and the legendary Sir Paul McCartney. It is a tribute to Sir Malcolm that he has been able to transcend musical boundaries to receive such an accolade from an organisation that is not normally associated with classical musicians.

This achievement has been totally vindicated in these two memorable concerts. The audience will long remember this occasion. They will cherish the superb playing, the stunning music and the elderly composer modestly accepting the standing ovation.

 

John France

 

 


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