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Seen and Heard Concert Review
An Arnold Concert: Julian Bliss (clarinet), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley, Royal Festival Hall, Friday, 24th September 2004 (PS)
The auspices were exceptional. This concert was the climax, though not the conclusion, of a week celebrating the life and music of Sir Malcolm Arnold. It began with the première of Tony Palmer’s film, Toward the Unknown Region, Malcolm Arnold – A Story of Survival, and will end (or, probably, by the time you read this, "has ended") with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band in a programme dominated by Arnold, original and arranged. In between came a Malcolm Arnold Study Day leading up to the official launching of Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris’s Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius – The Life and Music of Britain’s most misundertood composer, the latest and most thorough in what is now a line-up of three Arnold biographies.
This auspicious concert was played by the orchestra which fostered Arnold’s formidable performing talent and, albeit unwittingly, funded the vast store of knowledge and practical experience that would lead to the creation of much of the finest music ever to flow from the pen of an Englishman. The performances were conducted by Vernon Handley, respected by all and revered by most as the man who is currently without peer for his unstinting – and, more pointedly, effective – devotion to the cause of this island’s indigenous Music-with-a-capital-M. Last, and least - but only inasmuch as he featured in just one item - is the prodigious talent of Julian Bliss, who must by now be rated an icon for the future. Notwithstanding all the hard work he puts in, this lad, as any football manager will tell you, is a natcheral.
The "wisdom" we still receive from On High is that, regardless of the quality of the performers on the platform, the music to be performed is not worthy of any discerning audience. Strange to relate, then, that the hall, or as much as I could see of it from seat M20 in the stalls, was pretty well packed to the gunwhales with punters, clearly ignorant of their folly. I’ll leave you to guess just whose "folly" I really mean. Given the context of the concert, without any doubt the attraction was a man who, much as the audience would have wished it, is now too old, and whose condition is too unpredictable for him to make the journey from Attleborough in Norfolk. For reasons that we’ll come to before I’m done, that is so, so sad, but at least the man was with us through his music.
This starts to smack more of "special occasion" than "concert" pure and simple, and as such would defeat normal criticism. Yet, as Arnold’s Flourish for a 21st. Birthday started to flood the hall, there I sat, with my pen dutifully poised over my notepad. As the concert went on, it became ever harder to write anything down for fear of missing a single note of the proceedings. Duty did prevail, but my customarily less-than-legible scrawl became ever more indecipherable. The Flourish, a heady sequence of blaring, heavily punctuated fanfares, would perhaps have benefited from a bit more by way of dynamic shading, but what the heck – this was supposed to be festive and, replete with trumpets gleaming gold and silver, it hit the nail right on the head and made sure that anyone drooping after the study day was instantly restored to full alertness!
The start of Beckus the Dandipratt sounded a bit penny-plain, lacking in sheer impish audacity, but quickly warmed up. The range of playing times evident on recordings is astonishing, leaving lots of elbow-room to get it wrong. For me, Handley’s basic tempo was right on the button: fast, but mindful of the need to leave the quick notes room to breathe. I never cease to be amazed at how accomplished was Arnold’s orchestration, in what was only his second orchestral piece. The LPO did it full justice: the percussion were satisfyingly bold, the deep brass cavernous, the whole orchestra building a hefty head of steam for the big statement of the main theme. Yet, they saved their best for the disconcerting central "disintegration", which ought to (but for some inexplicable reason rarely does) put paid to any simplistic notions of Cornish Till Eulenspiegel clones. Handley really worked this passage, and consequently brought to the resurgent jollity a greater strength, or more precisely a roughneck’s greater resistance to discipline.
Someone quite rightly pointed out that the music for the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is riddled with clichés. Of course it is – it’s in the nature of the beast. Like anyone else, Arnold necessarily had a stock of formulae which helped him to churn out film scores with maximum alacrity. Yet, such was his skill, he could invest even clichés with the marks of genius. Handley encouraged his willing players to give us both barrels: lush horns, a fulsome main theme laid on with huge dollops of unashamed schmalz, a thoroughly gorgeous noise. Contrast came on the one hand in the form of some deliciously delicate chamber-music textures, sentimental orientalisms brimming with characteristic Arnold phrasings, and on the other in the "variations" on "This Old Man, He Played One", dispatched with such fleet good humour that I’m sure I wasn’t the only one smiling. All right, so the brass did tend to blow the rest of the LPO off the platform when they were, perhaps unwisely, given their heads. There’s nothing new in that, and in music like this is does no harm at all.
At this point, half of the orchestra left, though I hasten to add only because their part in the first half was over. Next up was the truly wonderful Second Clarinet Concerto, a work that on its own ought to assure Arnold a perennial place in the repertoire (and here I mean "at the Proms"!) Julian Bliss hasn’t made it his party-piece simply because that’s how his affair with the work got started. I well remember the first time he played it – or rather, just the finale. It was in Huddersfield Town Hall in April 1998, on the occasion when the Slaithwaite Philharmonic, under Adrian Smith, performed the Fifth Symphony before a packed house that included Sir Malcolm himself (and, just for the record, they did him proud.) Julian, then aged just 8½ and seemingly scarcely taller than his instrument, came on to make his debut with an orchestra, and ripped into the music with an unfettered gusto which brought the house down. A year or so later, he came back and did the whole work, with equal success.
Then, he was eager, undisciplined, and inspiring. Now at the ripe old age of about 15, he is more circumspect and much more disciplined, but just as inspiring. He matched Handley and the LPO blow for blow as they exposed the vein of viciousness that threads the first movement. In the second movement he became the maternal voice, charging the unutterably lovely theme with anxiety as the orchestra slipped into that miry, central pool of despond, and offering the reassuring hand that guided it back to safety. The finale, to a large degree playing the "manic" to the rest of the work’s "depressive", was way over the top – which is just how it should be. Ironically, then, I felt a tiny tinge of regret that, when Arnold twists his "Sally Army" tune into something Sousa might have penned, gone was the small boy with the "flash weskit" who cast care to the wind, leant back, stuck his clarinet’s bell in the air, and shrieked Arnold’s incredible descant line with reckless disregard for decency and decorum. That said, this was still a very fine performance that penetrated to the heart of this surprisingly disturbing work, and the all-too-brief finale was given an encore.
The Philharmonic Concerto is very special to the LPO, it being the eponymous "Philharmonic". To my ears at least, the massive opening dissonance, along with the fractured rhythm of the first subject, nods in the direction of the American "Big Band" style, and is therefore entirely in keeping with the work’s ostensible purpose, as a showpiece written for the LPO’s tour of the USA in 1976. However, it doesn’t stay that way for long, as witness the worrisome strings. That this is probably Arnold’s most fearsomely aggressive work - which is saying something - was a point far from overlooked by the performers, who imbued the massive textures with baleful energy, yet also with commendable clarity. This was probably why it was here that I became overtly aware that the violins were split left and right, an arrangement that also added edge to the sparser textures of the decidedly desolate second movement, with its plaintive solos, "pop tune" with purpose, and that remarkably weird passage for solo trombone and trilling strings. In the final Chaconne, Handley drew tremendous energy from the bass end, and the whole orchestra pitched in with great verve: you could feel the straining of the musical fabric, stretching almost to the point of ripping apart – the screaming trumpets were electrifying.
One of the marvels of this concert was its lack of compromise: the works were clearly chosen not just to please the crowds - there wasn’t a dance, English, Cornish or Scottish, in sight – but to present a representative picture of Arnold in all his disturbing depth. This was reflected in the rawness of the performances: Handley pulled no punches. Thus, the concert ended, not with a symphony like the Second, Fourth or Fifth, which are relatively easy meat, but with the decidedly knotty, Sixth, the finale apart a completely uncompromising piece. I’m even tempted to add that it was a minor stroke of genius to pair this with the Philharmonic Concerto. The Sixth is for me a symphony that asks more questions than I can yet answer. Beneath the Charlie Parker-isms, the Bossa-Nova and even the "rodeo parading" finale there are vertiginous depths glinting darkly. Once you have managed to prick its unusually unwelcoming surface sheen, a pair of gnarled hands reach out of the darkness and grab you by the throat. Thus ensnared, you are thereafter compelled to keep coming back to it.
On the strength of this outing, Vernon Handley seems possessed of the requisite gnarled hands! He displayed a terrific (exactly as per the dictionary definition) grip on the cumulative tensions, which must be far from easy with music that veers so unpredictably between nervous twitching, long dissonant crescendi to (apparently) nowhere, nightmare landscape painting, and superficial jollity. He cut right to the heart of the music, with a gripping realisation of the second movement’s "bad trip". The string chords, that sound as if Arnold had lifted them straight out of Koechlin’s Les Bandar-Log, were so impassive, immutable, even impregnable. The atonal woodwind theme continually turning in on itself, was so blank. The funereal music, leadenly echoing the slow movement of the Second Symphony, was like a dead hand clamped on your heart. Those endlessly coiling four-note phrases again nagged at my musical memory - and thanks to this performance, walking back along the Embankment afterwards I realised just what they were! Then there was that bossa-nova, which gives you just enough time to think, "Hey, man, that’s real cool!" before dissolving in front of your eyes.
It takes a master musical dramatist to create such a scene, and a director with Handley’s profound vision to realise that psychedelic drama. Even in the contrastingly open air of the finale, Handley found something new for me – the realisation that the gradual recession of the main subject led to the lynch-pin of the movement, a subdued passage that now seemed to whisper, "Dona Nobis Pacem," and was rewarded by renewal.
The occasional, and entirely understandable, imprecision apart, the LPO played as if their lives depended on it – and with this particular work, that was probably the case. These days, "commitment" is a word somewhat cheapened by over-use and abuse. This performance went a long way towards restoring its true meaning. Arnold’s Sixth certainly struck home here: I started to feel that we should stop clapping, as I watched Vernon Handley struggling gamely on and off the platform with the aid of two walking-sticks. But then I made out the expression on his face, and kept on clapping. I didn’t want to be party to robbing him of such well-deserved approbation, for this concert had indeed turned out to be a special occasion. It was truly a "Triumph for Todd."
It was also a triumph for Malcolm Arnold, which is why it is such a shame he wasn’t able to be there to share in it. An "all-Arnold" concert is itself a rarity, and one which contains such a huge proportion of "good red meat" is nigh-on unheard of. It follows that this concert’s success, unqualified in every significant respect, sends out the strongest possible message: Arnold’s music can no longer be ignored. It does belong to the world, and if there is the least shred of justice in that world, then his music shall be restored to its rightful place – at the heart of the repertoire and in the hearts of all good folk. As it happened, at the end of the Study Day Paul Harris expressed the hope that his and Tony’s book would herald a new dawn for Arnold’s music. With this concert, it’s just possible that we may already have seen the sun peeping over the horizon.