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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)
A Grand, Grand Festival Overture, Op. 57* (1956) [7’59]
Peterloo, Overture for Orchestra, Op. 97 (1967) [10’08"]
The Smoke, Overture for Orchestra, Op. 21 (1948) [7’57"]
Tam o’Shanter, Overture after the Poem of Robert Burns, Op. 51 (1955) [8’17"]
A Flourish for Orchestra, Op. 112 (1973) [3’25"]
The Fair Field, Op. 110 (1972) [7’17"]
A Sussex Overture, Op. 31 (1951) [9’18"]
Anniversary Overture for orchestra, Op. 99 (1968) [4’19"]
Robert Kett Overture, Op. 141** (1990) [7’52"]
Beckus the Dandipratt, Comedy Overture for Full Orchestra, Op. 5 (1943) [7’57"]
*Kathy Jones (principal vacuum cleaner); Helena Miles (sub principal vacuum cleaner); Chris Hoyle (section vacuum cleaner); Fiona Macintosh (principal floor polisher)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Rumon Gamba
Recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 20-22 January 2004. DDD** First recording
CHANDOS CHAN 10293 [75’43"]


With one exception all the items in this collection have been recorded before. However, this generously filled CD contains the most comprehensive assembly of Arnold overtures that I’ve ever come across.

A friend (and fellow reviewer) remarked to me a few days ago that Arnold’s music always sounds distinctive and easily recognisable as his. I agree, but with the important caveat that there’s a tremendous amount of variety in Arnold’s output. What is distinctive is the often flamboyant and tremendously inventive and understanding way in which he orchestrates – the sure sign of a composer who, as a former orchestral musician (with the London Philharmonic), is steeped in the ways of the orchestra.

Although there is a serious side to some of the music performed here, for the most part the members of the BBC Philharmonic sound to be having great fun. This is the right time to say that the playing on display here is tremendous. Moreover, it has been captured in spectacular, thrilling sound. Rumon Gamba conducts the pieces superbly, with wit, panache and great verve.

Some of the pieces are quite well known (though we don’t hear Arnold’s overtures in the concert hall with any great regularity, more’s the pity.) Both Tam o’ Shanter and the early Beckus the Dandipratt will be fairly familiar. And then, of course, there’s A Grand, Grand Festival Overture, the hilariously cliché-ridden composition written for Gerard Hoffnung’s 1956 Festival at the Royal Festival Hall. (A Hoffnung cartoon graces the CD cover, by the way.) It is typical of the thoroughness and enterprise of this CD that Chandos have spared no expense and have engaged a quartet of very distinguished soloists to take part in this piece. Quite rightly these virtuosi are all individually credited but why, I wonder, are the equally important rifle brigade soloists not named?

In four of these pieces this new CD faces competition from the composer himself, who conducts the LPO on a Reference Recordings CD (RR-48CD). This was set down in 1991, in Arnold’s seventieth year. There are many fine features to Arnold’s recordings of these overtures and, of course, they carry the stamp of authenticity. Having said that I found Gamba’s readings to be preferable in virtually every respect. He paces each of the pieces extremely well and is markedly quicker than the composer. It’s instructive to compare timings:
The Smoke 11’56" 7’57"
A Sussex Overture 12’11" 9’18"
Beckus the Dandipratt 10’45" 7’57"
The Fair Field 9’17" 7’17"

I haven’t had access to any scores so I can’t be 100% certain that the texts that are played are identical but I’m pretty sure that Gamba makes no cuts, so the difference is explained by a swifter overall approach to the music. In some cases I find Arnold’s more measured approach works very well. However, in The Fair Field, for example, I much prefer Gamba’s account of the important waltz music in which he finds more lilt and fantasy than does the composer, who sounds a bit heavy by comparison. In Beckus the Dandipratt comparisons are even more in Gamba’s favour. There’s an infectious zest and relish in every bar of his reading as he and his players conjure up an irresistible impression of a cheeky young urchin. Against this, the composer’s performance sounds rather tame, I’m afraid.

Among other highlights, Gamba does Peterloo very well. The opening and closing music evidences Arnold’s ability to write a damn fine tune. In between, the splendidly pictorial depiction of the massacre itself is extremely vivid. (Is this a small-scale, English equivalent of Shostakovich’s Eleventh symphony?) When the Big Tune is reprised quietly, after the tumult, it’s really quite moving in this performance (track 2, 6’50")

There are some splendidly tipsy bassoons in evidence at the start of Tam o’ Shanter, followed at once by some stunningly recorded percussion. This whole piece is superbly characterised. Gamba gives a biting, extrovert performance of The Smoke and the eerie, quiet central section comes over most effectively. The Waltonian Sussex Overture is played with tremendous panache.

There’s some hugely entertaining music on this CD. Rumon Gamba conducts with consistent incisiveness and flair. With the BBC Philharmonic responding with great enthusiasm this is a pretty unmissable disc. I urgently recommend it.

John Quinn

Malcolm Arnold Society

Gerard Hoffnung Website

The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold - The Brilliant and the Dark by Paul R.W. Jackson

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