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Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 71 (1960).
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Arnold.
No rec. info. DDD

The advantages of a composer conducting his own works are obvious here – this recording screams forth a fundamental belief in this score that is unshakeable. There is strong competition for this product, to be sure. On super-budget Naxos, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Andrew Penny come in at the usual fiver and manage to include the Third Symphony (8.553739); on Chandos, Richard Hickox adds his thoughts with all the recorded excellence that company is famous for (an award-winning recording on CHAN9290).

There was also a version at one time by another stalwart of the British music scene, Vernon Handley, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, on Conifer Classics 75605 51258-2).

But for all this, it is Arnold’s version that carries the laurels. The orchestration of this piece is up to Arnold’s usual standards, and has the quirk that the percussion includes marimba, bongos and deep tom-toms (this was not the first time the Caribbean had infiltrated Arnold’s music - see the Commonwealth Christmas Overture of 1957). The Fourth Symphony was influenced by the Notting Hill race-riots of 1958, yet there are other items on the agenda, too. Starting at around four minutes in, a long-breathed melody suppurates Radio Two-isms, making up a contrastive element in unusual fashion. Astonishingly, Arnold constructs a musically satisfying twenty-minute structure from these elements, the musical argument moving easily and (seemingly) logically from one mode of expression to the next.

The brief second movement (a mere five palindrome-obsessed minutes) opens mysteriously, but becomes progressively more filmic as it goes on. The extended slow movement (18’40) is the best movement in that it presents an atmospheric picture, in no hurry whatsoever to unfurl itself and so conjures up an atmosphere of almost meditative rest. Arnold is an impressive colourist and his sometimes-luxurious harmonies help towards an impression almost of musical decadence. It is true to say that one can almost swim in some of the textures.

The marking of the finale as ‘Con fuoco’ is either deliberate misnomer or comes from Arnold’s misguided streak. It is, for want of a better term, a ‘determined fugal frolic’ in Arnold’s best, most outrageous manner – and how the LPO enjoys itself (particularly the horns, with their whooping glissandi). This is playful fire – rough play, admittedly, but play nonetheless. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946) is near at hand at one point, shoved aside by some disruptive percussion. The overall impression is of a gifted, fun-loving composer showing off, and very impressive and involving it all is, too.

It is perhaps surprising (it is to me) to be highlighting a disc of a Malcolm Arnold symphony as a pinnacle of the Lyrita catalogue. Yet there are riches to be discovered here, if you take the plunge.

Colin Clarke

Subsequent to the recording of these dances Malcolm Arnold completed a set of Welsh dance. Their exists a recording of a complete set of dances on Naxos 8553526 [not reviewed LM]

The Lyrita catalogue

The Malcolm Arnold Society

The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold by Paul Jackson

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