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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (born 1921)
The Collection

A Grand, Grand Overture, Opus 57
Carnival of Animals, Opus 72

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 Hands), Opus 104
Serenade, Opus 26
Larch Trees, Opus 3

David Nettle & Richard Markham (pianos)
London Musici/Mark Stephenson
English Dances, Opus 27 (arr for brass band)
English Dances, Opus 33 (arr for brass band)
Scottish Dances, Opus 59 (arr for brass band)
Little Suite No. 1 for Brass Band, Opus 80
Cornish Dances, Opus 91 (arr for brass band)
Little Suite No. 2 for Brass Band, Opus 93
The Padstow Lifeboat, Opus 94
Fantasy for Brass Band, Opus 114

Grimethorpe Colliery UK Coal Band/Elgar Howarth
Overture, Beckus the Dandipratt, Opus 5
Anniversary Overture, Opus 99

BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Guitar Concerto, Opus 67

Julian Bream (guitar)/Melos Ensemble/Malcolm Arnold
Rec RCA 1959 (Guitar Concerto), RCA & Conifer 1992-97 (remainder)
RCA-BMG 74321 88392-2 [2CDs: 75.36; 76.04]



This two-disc set celebrates the 80th birthday in October 2001 of one of England’s most prolific, versatile and (still) underrated composers, Sir Malcolm Arnold. It does not offer a fully rounded portrait since none of his nine symphonies is included, nor is any of his chamber music nor any of his prodigious output of film music. Despite these omissions these two well-filled discs will give great pleasure. In particular, they offer a splendid introduction for the newcomer to Arnold’s music.

He began his musical career as a trumpeter in the LPO and this experience "on the inside" has undoubtedly influenced his music very significantly. No matter how much he stretches his players, the demands which he makes on them are always musical and are made for a musical purpose. Having had the pleasure of playing in performances of several of the works in this collection I can attest to the fact that they are not easy to play but they are great fun.

I think that two things above all distinguish Arnold’s music. One is his tremendous skill as an orchestrator. Because he understands the orchestra (or the brass band, for that matter) from within he has an unerring feel for colour and effect. This is especially shown in the way he writes for wind and brass – and he must be a percussionist’s delight! The other, even more telling characteristic is his melodic gift. He can write tunes and he is not afraid so to do. I couldn’t begin to count the number of tunes contained on these discs. Many of them are intrinsically simple (such as the one in the slow movement of the Concerto for Two Pianos) and some are just plain outrageous (as in the finale of the same work). No matter, they lodge in the memory and entertain.

A glance at the roster of performers assembled here will indicate that the performances are of high quality. Several are led by that doyen of English music, Vernon Handley, who has, of course, recorded all of Arnold’s symphonies with great success. Others are under the expert direction of Elgar Howarth, like Arnold himself originally a trumpeter of distinction. And two of the performances are in the authoritative hands of the composer himself – a splendidly perky performance of The Padstow Lifeboat and the classic account of the Guitar Concerto which features Julian Bream, for whom it was written.

I do have one quibble. No fewer than four of Arnold’s sets of "regional" dances are included (is he a closet advocate of devolution, I wonder?). These excellent pieces are always welcome but I do wish that, for contrast, some of the dances had been presented in their original orchestral guise. This is not to denigrate the Grimethorpe performances which are not so much excellent as fabulously expert. However, notwithstanding their skills I did find myself missing the more extensive tonal palette of the full orchestra. It would have been nice if BMG had included say two sets in the orchestral versions and two as brass band arrangements.

The marvellous Grimethorpe band also performs several works which were originally conceived for their medium: The Padstow Lifeboat (1968); the two Suites, which date from 1965 and 1967; and the Fantasy (1974). The Padstow Lifeboat, though ostensibly a celebratory occasional piece is, on closer examination, a typically ambiguous piece. To be sure, there is a characteristically jaunty ‘big tune’. However, the tune is punctuated frequently by a baleful siren call on the flügelhorn and at the heart of the work there is a tumultuous sea storm. Thus, in under five minutes of music Arnold gave the people of Padstow not just a splendid party piece for the opening of their new lifeboat station but also a timely reminder of the dangers that the boat and its crew could encounter any day of the week. So much of his music is like this: superficially it seems lighthearted but you don’t have to scratch the surface too hard to reveal darker emotions underneath.

This collection also includes at least one rarity in the shape of Larch Trees. This was written in 1943 (the same year as Beckus the Dandipratt). It was first performed that year (though only in rehearsal) under Arnold’s baton in the Royal Albert Hall but it had to wait until 1984 for a public performance. The current recording by London Musici was, I believe, its premiere recording and very good it is. In his liner notes Andrew Dalton points out the influences of Sibelius and Delius which are apparent in the music (especially the former, I would say). As its title implies it is "nature music" and it is well worth hearing. London Musici play with great sensitivity under Mark Stephenson as, indeed, they do in the charming Serenade for Small Orchestra. In the latter work they also have opportunities to display wit and brio and they are not found wanting.

A couple of the works were new to me. One such was the Anniversary Overture which Arnold penned in 1968 to mark the 21st anniversary of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. It is only a short piece (under 4 minutes) but it is wholly characteristic and properly celebratory (with just a brief hint of the Orient in the orchestration at 1’52"). The other piece new to me was Carnival of Animals. This was written for a Hoffnung memorial concert in 1960 (The Grand, Grand Overture was written for one of the "real things" in 1956 and memorably recorded ‘live’ on that occasion though Handley’s account here benefits from much better, and therefore more detailed, sound). This Carnival is a true jeu d’esprit; six miniatures illustrating beasts as diverse as giraffes and sheep. Performed here with appropriate relish by Handley and the RPO, this would be ideal fare for the Last Night of the Proms.

So, a hugely enjoyable anniversary tribute to a composer who has given enormous pleasure to performers and audiences for over 60 years. All the performances are fully worthy of the occasion, the sound is first class throughout and the notes, though succinct are serviceable.

Happy birthday, Sir Malcolm!

John Quinn

See also review by Terry Barfoot


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