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MALCOLM ARNOLD – THE SYMPHONIES: A comparative review (Part One)

In common with many other 20th Century British composers (including William Wordsworth, Richard Arnell, Bernard Stevens and Peter Racine Fricker), Malcolm Arnold cut his symphonic teeth not on a large-scale work for full orchestra but on a symphony for strings (1946). Like his fellow artists, following the example of the young Mendelssohn, Arnold chose to flex his symphonic muscles within the restrictions of the string orchestra before tackling the Everest of orchestral forms.

Several writers have commented on the tough Hindemith-like spikiness of the writing in the String Symphony and observed that the mature Arnold is not yet apparent in this gritty early piece. It is certainly Bartókian in its motoric rhythms and frequently brutal attack but Malcolm Arnold the future symphonist is there also. Fingerprints of the composer such as glissandi and trills (in the main theme of the central slow movement) are present and the bold, massive strokes arising from the simplest and, on first glance, most unpromising of material are quintessential Arnold. Even in the most richly scored of his works there is an element of steel and an uncompromisingly direct utterance already in place in the Symphony for Strings.

The only version currently available on disc features Vernon Handley and the BBC Concert Orchestra on Conifer (75605 512982) in a typically polished performance that makes the best possible case for this work it to be regarded as a necessary part of the Arnold cycle rather than as an uncharacteristic, one-off example of the composer’s youthful Hindemith and Bartók influenced period. With the glorious Philharmonic Concerto and such rarities as the Water Music and the Anniversary Overture also on the programme, this is a self-recommending release.

Some of the post-war austerity that characterises the Symphony for Strings remains in Malcolm Arnold’s First Symphony of 1949. The work was completed on February 16th 1949 in London and was not the result of a commission. Consequently, the symphony had to wait two years before its premiere at the 1951 Cheltenham Festival (by the Hallé Orchestra under Arnold himself) where it served notice to the musical world of an original voice capable of massive public statements.

Sibelian not only in its breadth of utterance, but also in its very language, especially the woodwind writing, the opening Allegro doesn’t quite realise the massive potential of its hugely impressive opening bars. This introductory statement (consisting of the interval of a rising second and a third contained within a perfect fourth) provides the material for most of the first movement, the composer sticking rigidly to the symphonic principle of integration at the risk of sacrificing variety. Contrast of a kind is provided by the second subject, introduced tentatively on muted strings. The recapitulation combines motifs from both first and second subject and the movement ends on a grand scale but with the feeling that not all the questions raised by the imposing opening statement have been fully developed.

The central Andantino is characterised by the inventiveness of its scoring, including passages where the extremes of the orchestral range are exploited and the orchestration becomes chamber-like. Thus, the Ninth Symphony of 1986, which at first sounds so unusual in its scaled-down scoring, is in fact a logical progression of Arnold’s symphonic style already present in Symphony no 1.

Perhaps only in the Finale is the composer recognisably himself, the first two movements having a rhetorical, objective sweep and lacking the piercingly ironic touches that make Arnold the unique and original composer he is. This vigorous Vivace con fuoco has many fugal passages woven into its Rondo format but the most memorable moment comes just before the coda when a grotesque parody of a military march struts into a tutti climax. Some commentators have seen a savage ironic comment on the composer’s tragically foreshortened military service in this witty quick march. Another explanation may be that Arnold has at last tired of saying big things in his first major orchestral work and wants to let us know that his symphonies, like those of Mahler, will contain material from the ordinary world as well as the metaphysical. The ensuing coda broadens the material of the march into an epic peroration but the unsettling nature of having the rug pulled from under the listener remains and the symphony ends in a rather less exalted world from the rugged grandeur with which it began.

Of the four current versions in the CD catalogue, the quirkiest by far is that conducted by the composer himself (EMI British Composers series CDM 7640442). Putting the Bournemouth Orchestra through their paces and hell too, in certain passages, this is the longest version of the symphony by far at an astonishing and sometimes gruelling 39’ 08’’. Set this against the next slowest interpretation (Richard Hickox on Chandos) which clocks in at 30’ 13’’ and you get some idea of the gargantuan proportions of the composer’s interpretation. As a fascinating document of a composer near the end of his symphonic creativity looking back on his earlier self, this is an essential purchase. The very lingering over details, especially in the first movement, which is an amazing 6’ 42’’ longer than Vernon Handley’s version on Conifer, creates a special feeling as though the composer were looking back over the years on his younger self and investing his first symphony with the same mature reflection he brings to his later examples in the genre. There is also a poignant feeling of a creative artist unwilling to let go of his first contribution to the highest form of large-scale musical expression. The other Arnold items on the CD are also essential listening, especially the Concerto for Two Hands with Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith as soloists in an emotionally authentic reading second to none.

Of the other versions, Vernon Handley and the RPO on Conifer (75605 512572) (released in 1996) are as dedicated and accomplished as one might have predicted but some extremes of tempo may serve to put it out of the running for some listeners. In particular, the first movement really is too fast for comfort, the crucial dotted semiquavers in the opening thematic material being snatched at rather than emphatic. The "alla marcia" of the Finale also starts off rather too quickly with the inevitable result that there is nowhere for it to accelerate to, as marked. However, the expressive Andantino is perfectly judged and there is much else to enjoy in this reading, which is accompanied by a desirable version of the Fifth Symphony.

Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland on Naxos (8.553406) in a 1995 recording boast expertly judged tempi throughout, yet the performance occasionally seems underpowered, particularly in the strings, whose grand theme in the symphony’s coda sounds dangerously thin. Nonetheless, at bargain price this is an excellent introduction to the Arnold First for those listeners unsure whether the symphonies of this great British composer will be to their taste.

This leaves Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra on Chandos in another 1995 release (CHAN 9335). In a characteristically clear and warm Chandos recording, Hickox provides an ideal balance between Handley’s brisk, no-nonsense approach and the thoughtful, more analytical style evident in the composer’s own reading. It is a worthy first recommendation and sets the standard of a consistently fine Arnold cycle. No Arnold enthusiast will want to be without the composer’s own performance on EMI as a fascinating supplement to Hickox. Both readings reveal different facets of this immensely impressive and characteristically bold symphonic début.

The Second Symphony (1953) was commissioned by the Winter Gardens Society of Bournemouth and received its premiere by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves. This is the work with which Arnold established an international reputation, further performances of the symphony taking place in Canada, America and Australia within ten years of its completion. A fusion of Mahlerian angst, (especially in the rootless, desolate funeral march section of the extended slow movement which is pure Expressionism) and Sibelian tone painting (in the sprite-like Trio for example), this symphony speaks with the relaxed tones of a composer who has found his authentic voice and assimilated his influences. Some striking orchestral effects (such as the passage for violin harmonics, xylophone and piccolo in the Allegro con brio Finale) show Arnold growing in confidence without showing off and the extrovert brilliance of the coda should not draw attention away from the essentially subtle nature of much of the writing. The gentle opening Allegretto is a world away from the intense striving of the corresponding movement from the first symphony, whilst the sinister tones of the evanescent scherzo are accomplished from the simplest of means. For many of the composer’s fans, this is the archetypal Arnold symphony and it was the main work chosen to be played at the composer’s 80th birthday concert in Northampton on October 21st 2001. The heart-rending Lento apart, this is one of his sunniest symphonic statements. Engaging though it is, Arnold’s later examples in the genre, where the composer stretches himself and the listener, demonstrate a deep personal involvement occasionally lacking in this most self-contained piece.

The Symphony No 2 was the first of Arnold’s symphonies to be commercially recorded in 1955 on a long-deleted Philips LP with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer himself (NBL 5021). This recording, though not sounding in the highest of fidelity, is a valuable document of Arnold’s own interpretation. Whilst nowhere near as drawn out as his subsequent readings of symphonies 4 (Lyrita) and 5 (EMI), even this early example of Arnold as conductor of his own compositions shows a steady hand and a cool head, playing down the more extrovert passages in favour of a structurally integrated performance of Sibelian logic. This LP also features a boisterous rendering of the Beckus the Dandipratt Overture also under the composer’s baton and the Tam O’Shanter Overture conducted by John Hollingsworth. It is to be hoped that Philips (or Dutton) will issue these important documents of the young Arnold interpreting his own works.

It comes as no surprise that Sir Charles Groves’ 1977 recording (EMI CDM 5663242)yields a warmly authentic performance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, given the conductor’s close involvement with the work since its conception. The recording is admirably clear and immediate. This release is a strong candidate for first choice. It is also a first class example of the strong affinity between conductor and composer which lasted until Groves’ death in 1993.

Vernon Handley’s reading (Conifer UK: CDCF 240) of 1994 is surprisingly relaxed, periodically sounding underpowered, especially in the first and last movements where a certain suave sophistication smoothes over this rough diamond of a composer. The recessed recording doesn’t help and as a performance it is hard to recommend above the competition. The balance is curious so that the harp is especially prominent at the expense of brass and timpani. The string sound is occasionally opaque and the boomy recording means that the aftermath of tutti climaxes masks the start of ensuing passages. However, no Arnold fan will want to be without the coupling: a world premiere recording of his hilarious Carnival of the Animals.

Hickox and the LSO on Chandos (CHAN 9335) are predictably fine, benefiting from a clean and clear 1995 recording which is detailed without being too analytical and enshrines a lively and buoyant performance where virtuosity is always at the service of the composer. The funeral march in the grief-stricken Lento is grippingly unfolded at a daringly slow tempo. In this reading, it feels like a diatonic cousin to the funeral march from Webern’s op6 Orchestral Pieces with correspondingly harrowing frugality of texture and intensity of feeling. The hair-raising acceleration into the work’s coda has to be heard to be believed and the timpani thwacks in the coda itself set the seal on a thrilling version which is every bit as recommendable as the Symphony no 1 coupling.

Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland present the most intense version of the symphony (Naxos 8.553406) (1995) coupled with the First Symphony. This is especially so in the Lento which is almost four minutes shorter than the Hickox version, yet never sounds rushed or trivialised. Indeed, this passionate reading contains some of the most distinctive playing on any version. Arnold’s quirky personality is caught to perfection in the main themes of outer movements and the symphony’s coda is positively explosive. This delightfully idiomatic reading confirms an impression gained of Andrew Penny from a live performance of the Ninth Symphony with the Hull Philharmonic in 1997 as a natural Arnoldian. If bold characterisation and ready wit are your main priorities above recording quality and technical infallibility then this disc could well be a first recommendation.

Douglas Bostock and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic released a special 80th Birthday Tribute CD on the occasion of Arnold’s 80th birthday on October 21st 2001 at a memorable concert held in the Derngate Theatre, Northampton (RLPO Live RLCD402P). The disc is a valuable reminder of a special concert for those who attended and includes other works performed at that celebratory event, including Beckus and the Second Set of English Dances. The performance of the symphony itself is a few notches below Penny and Hickox in excitement and lacks the architectural mastery Groves brings to the work. It is a brisk reading (27’ 57’’) but the recessed recording and relaxed interpretation fails to register in comparison with its rivals on disc. A pity, as the live performance in Northampton was a much more immediate experience with the Liverpool players and Bostock galvanised by the composer’s presence and the significance of the occasion. The excellent accompanying booklet is distinguished by some carefully chosen quotations and keen insights into both composer and symphony by Lewis Foreman.

Sir Charles Groves steals the honours in this work, imparting an insider’s knowledge of the symphony born of long and detailed study. There is affection and understanding in every bar and the coupling of Arnold’s Fifth Symphony and the Peterloo Overture both with the CBSO under the composer makes this disc all the more desirable. Hickox is also thoroughly recommendable and his extra vigour and drive together with unsurpassable Chandos recording quality may make it a first choice for many listeners. The Naxos release must not be forgotten either – this release is distinguished by its conductor’s sharp direction and constitutes an incredible bargain at under a fiver for those who want to explore the early Arnold symphonies on a budget.

The first two symphonies establish the basic Arnold symphonic blueprint. They set out his Mahlerian credentials, not just in their use of marches, both quick and funeral, but also in his unique ability to tap into listeners’ subconscious. The composer’s music has been fed into the collective national psyche via his numerous film scores from the 1950s and 1960s. Black and white classics such as the St Trinians films and Whistle Down the Wind seem to have ever been part of the British cultural heritage. So when Arnold manipulates similar gestures in his symphonies, subverting those subliminal iconic sounds, it produces a disturbingly powerful effect that is uniquely in Arnold’s gift. In his grotesque marches and sleazy distortions of familiar phrases we can almost hear the collapse of the British Empire, corrupted by the very composer who was commissioned to write music to personify it. Small wonder that by the time Arnold came to write his Fifth Symphony in 1961 he chose to guy openly the cliché-ridden gestures he had employed on film after film. The fact that, in doing so, he also produced one of the greatest of all his symphonic utterances is what makes him such a fascinating and complex symphonist.

©Paul Conway


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