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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Wind Chamber Music
Wind Quintet, Op.2 (1943) [12:01]
Duo for 2 clarinets, Op. 135, Divertimento (1988) : (I. Allegro energico [1:40] II. Allegretto [0:48] III. Vivace [0:53] IV. Lento [1:51] V. Vivace [1:19] VI. Adagio [1:33])*
Dream City (1938) (arr. Paul Harris for wind quintet) [2:58]
Hobson's Choice: Overture (1953) (arr. Uwe Radok for wind octet) [3:30]
Grand Fantasia for flute, clarinet and piano (1940) [10:03]
Overture (1940) (arr. Uwe Radok for wind octet) [3:22]
Suite Bourgeoise for flute, clarinet [played by the oboe in this performance] and piano (c. 1939) [12:05]
Scherzetto (arr. for clarinet and piano from film score You Know What Sailors Are) (1953) [2:44]
Fantasy for solo clarinet, Op. 87 (1966) [4:05]
Fantasy for flute and clarinet (c. 1960s) [1:30]
Divertimento for flute, oboe and clarinet, Op. 37 (c. 1952) [9:05]
3 Shanties for wind quintet, Op. 4 (1943) [6:57]
East Winds: (Judith Treggor (flute); Joseph Sanders (oboe); Victoria Soames Samek (clarinet); Jonathan Hassan (French horn); Lizbeth Elliott (bassoon); Paul Chilvers (piano); Veda Lin (second oboe); Allison Rosser (second clarinet); Duncan Fuller (second French horn); Lauren Barr (second bassoon)
rec. 22-23 June 2006, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England. DDD
*op. 135 movements are separated and alternate with successive works
NAXOS 8.570294 [76:24]

I have to confess I have never much bothered with the music of Malcolm Arnold. This disc was sent to me for review as an un-requested bonus and it seemed a welcome opportunity to do a little catching up. Back in the days when Lyrita made their first, brief, attempt at issuing CDs, I bought the 4th Symphony and the Dances conducted by the composer. I enjoyed them at the time but have not returned to them. I also remember hearing a broadcast of the première of Symphony no. 6 and having mixed feelings about it. I recently enjoyed Tam O’Shanter in a spirited recording under Alexander Gibson and I must have Beckus the Dandipratt somewhere on an old LP.

And of course, there’s his film music. I remember thinking, as I heard that haunting theme for “Whistle Down the Wind”, that this music ought to be known beyond the cinema. But I quickly realized it could not be since it is too short-winded to serve any function except in the original film context.

The writer of the liner notes, Paul Harris, points out the similarity between the “Whistle Down the Wind” theme and that of the “Fantasy for Flute and Clarinet”. But the problem is not resolved. Once the attractive opening music has run its course, Arnold changes direction, does nothing in particular for a bit, then goes back to the opening theme. And that’s it.

And here, for me, is the trouble with practically everything on this disc. It’s a jamboree of non sequiturs. So many pieces start off with a jaunty little motive, often not much more than an arpeggio, insufficiently pithy to sustain even the few seconds required of it. Then, when it’s run out of steam, or a little after that, he just stops and goes off at a tangent.

Some people evidently find this hilarious, thought-provoking, even “Mahlerian”. I suppose that, if one knows the sad facts behind it, the “Duo for Two Clarinets”, written after serious mental illness and several years of compositional silence, could be found a moving portrayal of a shattered mind; a mind grasping motives from his younger days that flee before they come into focus. I think it would certainly work as the sound-track to a film about some such situation. But I wonder if we can really read so much into it. Does it not simply bear witness to a composer whose music never amounted to much more than nothing, and who could no longer disguise the fact?

Just to show that I kept on trying to find something more, I thought the “Andantino” from the “Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet” a touching little piece. The “Fantasy for Clarinet” (solo) sees Arnold getting to grips with his material and composing something worthwhile for an unpromising medium. I enjoyed most of the “Suite Bourgeoise”. Not so much the Prelude which starts contrapuntally but ducks the issues with the usual non sequiturs. But the following pieces are well-written light music, reminding us that at his best Arnold might be considered a sort of minor English equivalent of Jean Françaix.

Please see Michael Cookson’s review for a much more positive response. The fact that the few pieces I enjoyed were those where the music is allowed to blossom and develop rather than go off at a tangent, may be more my problem than Arnold’s. On the other hand, readers who similarly expect music to blossom and develop, to face the issues, rather than go off at a tangent in the hope people will find it funny, may share my perplexities.

Michael Cookson mentions having heard the “Suite Bourgeoise” in a version for flute, oboe and piano. It’s played by flute, oboe and piano here too, so presumably the Naxos title is just wrong and there is no version with clarinet.

I am quite sure that my dissatisfaction has nothing to do with the performances or recordings. In particular, the hardworking clarinettist Victoria Soames Samek deserves all possible praise.

Christopher Howell

See also Review by Michael Cookson




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