When this disc was first issued in 1992 it attracted some attention but has
been lost from sight in the drifts of new releases. This is a pity as the
CD contains four premiere recordings. If memory serves these are still the
only recordings of four of the overtures.
The Lyrita CD of the Fourth Symphony (made five or years before these)
demonstrated the composer-conductor's slower interpretative approach. Contrast
this approach with his EMI recording of Symphony No. 5. Many did not like
this. That said, I rather enjoyed the Lyrita disc despite, or perhaps because
of, the long lines and extended emotional intensity - a very Mahlerian
approach which seems to have settled on the composer's shoulders in older
age. It is stunning how much detail comes across in that performance. These
Reference Recordings interpretations are projected with a similar steady
pulse but trembling excitement is never far away.
A Sussex Overture is perky celebratory affair: new brightly-minted
mornings. This is set against a desperate heroism and a valiantly beautiful
endeavour of a tune at 1:50. The crowning glory of echoing fanfares (2:43)
and many other passages remind you of the Symphony No. 5 of ten years later.
Other highlight episodes include: 'ticking' flutes counterpointing a bumbling
tuba (3:48); Sibelian 'chuntering' (4:11), a Holstian tread (6:30), at 9:01
the echoing horns of the Moeran symphony and Baxian (Symphony No. 5) woodwind
calls. This work has all the quicksilver moods and lambent display of a miniature
concerto for orchestra. Perhaps the invention becomes a little stilted at
the end although even this is redeemed by the return of the heroic endeavour
theme in the closing pages.
Beckus was never a favourite of mine. Here there are compensations:
Loud boozy fanfares, 'spick and span' trumpet playing with a skirl and a
slur. This is a Till Eulenspiegel of a piece. Its chaotic uproar comes
over as rather disjointed and perhaps the tendency to slower tempi is noticeable.
The Smoke caused some scandal because of its jazzy references when
first performed in the late 1940s. Jazz (Gershwin 'hits town' more than once)
is certainly there but so is Broadway or more accurately The West End. Exuberance
is the quality you associate with this piece as the explosive brass skirl,
hiccup, leer, snarl and lavishly slalom their way through the piece.
The Fair Field is dedicated to Arnold's great friend and collaborator,
William Walton. The point of departure is a fairground roundabout of a theme
with vividly painted wooden horses grinning and the boys eyeing up the girls.
The air of childhood innocence and of newly-minted mornings is there also
promising excitement and adventure. The griping, gripping brass are a frequent
presence below the garish colours and these 'anchor' the texture. A thunderous
exercise: cheeky and sly like a saucy seaside postcard. The final moments
include a slowly-glowing sunset.
Lastly we come to the (musically) strongest piece in the collection. The
Commonwealth Christmas Overture is a piece I have known for years from
a 1960s radio relay (LSO/Alexander Gibson). The Gibson still sounds very
good and marginally (as a performance) I prefer it to the composer's version
however it is no match in recording quality for References sweep-the-board
What an overture this is! For me it is up there with another underestimated
British overture (recorded once on EMI - Vernon Handley): Bliss's Edinburgh
Overture. The Arnold's Waltonian splendour is undeniable. If you like
Orb and Sceptre and Crown Imperial you must have this. The
overture plays for almost 19 minutes. In that time the composer constantly
pelts ideas at you and does so in stunning variety. Borodin's Prince Igor
was not far from the composer's pen in the echoing brass fanfares. There
are dashing and sliding flute glissandi, sea chanties (2:30, 16:31), English
country dances (no bleached smocks, thank heavens!) and magically 'Christmassy'
gamelan textures. The West Indies is evoked with electric guitar and maracas
in a tune which almost (but not quite) becomes 'O my island in the sun'.
The use of electric guitar foreshadows his 1970s experiments with the group
Deep Purple. CCO is one of the glories
of the British orchestral display repertoire and well worth getting to know.
It articulates Arnold's unbounded and bounding inspiration for orchestration
at the beck and call of musical values.
The recording quality on this CD is of stunning immediacy serving the music
rather than the reverse. The project is a happy stroke of genius from Reference,
the late Christopher Palmer (how we feel his absence!) and, of course, from
the composer. Musical values clearly swept the board in all project decisions.
The eleven pages of (English only) notes are provocative and full of insights.
Chris Palmer is the author. There four stills of the composer from the recording
sessions and 2 drawings by Terry Williams. Warmly recommended for any collection
of Arnold and any collector of British music. This is not a shelf item but
one which cries out to be played.
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