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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. ** First recording DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10293 [75:43]



Comparative recordings
1. Overtures: including Sussex, Beckus, Smoke, Fair Field LPO/composer, Reference Recordings RRCD-48 (also quoted as RR 48 CD). review
2. Orchestral Works: including overtures Beckus, Anniversary, Peterloo,
Flourish BBC Concert O/Handley, Conifer Classics 75605 51298 2
3. Orchestral Works: including Grand, Grand Overture RPO/Handley, Conifer Classics 75605 51240 2
4. Grand, Grand OvertureHoffnung (Morley College) SO/composer, EMI Classics CMS7 63302 2 review
5. Peterloo Overture CBSO/composer, EMI 7 63368 2

 

Just as I was about to start on this review, I happened to open an issue of BBC Music Magazine, and before my very eyes swam a review of this disc. "Is this an Omen?" I wondered. No, it wasn’t. Instead it was a source of disbelief. The reviewer kicked off with, "Listening to an hour and a quarter’s worth of overtures by Malcolm Arnold turned out to be an unexpectedly dispiriting experience." I blinked. The words persisted.

Now, I’m not trying to deny the fellow his right to find the experience dispiriting. No, what took me aback was that he seemed to expect that he should be able to swallow, in one gulp, ten overtures by the same composer and not get indigestion. Ancient wisdom is no less wisdom for being ancient, and even today "You can have too much of a good thing", not to mention, "If you’re full, then stop eating." Come to think of it, aren’t overtures, like bowls of soup, meant to be consumed one to a sitting?

Diatribe over – down to business. In the last couple of years there have been two new biographies of Arnold, a surfeit of literary riches that is, sadly and still unaccountably, nowhere near matched by a corresponding surfeit of performances of his music [see below for reviews]. Well, not quite true: although his more substantial music remains unjustifiably neglected, his "light" music, including several of the items on this CD, does see the light of day with something approaching reasonable frequency. Alright, so unwary folk get the false impression that Arnold is a "light" composer, but that’s another story.

Rumon Gamba is perhaps the most outstanding of the new - but hardly what you’d call "densely populated" - generation of Arnold advocates. Under his dynamic baton the BBCPO performed all nine of Arnold’s Symphonies to mark the composer’s 80th. birthday. In passing, we might note ruefully that this salute was given before small, invited audiences at Studio Seven, Manchester, rather than before the heaving masses at the Proms. With the present CD, Gamba now has to his credit three recordings of Arnold, the others being Film Music Vol. 2 and a 2-CD set of Symphonies 7-9. This last effectively completed the Chandos cycle, started under Hickox, which had stalled after the Sixth Symphony. It was a most welcome issue, because we desperately needed more views of these works.

Regardless of how I feel about the details of his interpretations, I have nothing but admiration for Gamba’s mettle. He believes wholeheartedly in the music, has his own bright ideas about how it should go, and puts those ideas into practice with infectious energy. Sometimes, as we shall see below, this evident enthusiasm leads him to drive the music a bit too hard. In that, as we are about to discover, he is in good company!

My colleague John Quinn (see his review) highlighted the contrast in playing times between Gamba and the composer. I’ve expanded the table to include another Arnold champion, the inestimable Vernon Handley:
  ARNOLD GAMBA HANDLEY
Peterloo 9’01 10’08 10’16
The Smoke 11’56 7’57 -
A Sussex Overture 12’11 9’18 -
Beckus the Dandipratt 10’45 7’57 7’48
The Fair Field 9’17 7’17 -
Flourish for Orchestra - 3’25 3’21
Anniversary Overture - 4’19 3’54
A Grand, Grand Overture 7’50 7’59 7’16
Tam o’Shanter - 8’17 8’20

It seems that Arnold himself is generally the odd one out, and by a massive margin! However, two of the Arnold timings defy that general rule. That of the Grand, Grand Overture - and where, I wonder, did it pick up that "Festival" it sports on the present issue? - is from the recording of the first of the celebrated and infamous Hoffnung concerts. Then there’s his 1973 EMI recording of Peterloo, which leaves both Gamba and Handley stranded in their starting-blocks!

The reason becomes clear when you note that the others were set down much later (Reference Recordings, 1991). Age and circumstances had sorely sapped Arnold’s physical vitality, yet his grip on the music remained absolutely sure, suggesting something of a parallel with Klemperer. These performances are certainly slow, but never merely sluggish. Showing remarkable internal consistency, he unveils veins of powerful drama, and works wonders with his orchestral colours. Dracula, I’m sure, would have died for Arnold’s baleful "brasso contrabasso"!

More than that of almost any other composer you could mention, Arnold’s orchestral music - written by an orchestral player with orchestral players very much in mind - actually seems to militate against poor performance. These "overtures" are no exception: all of the tabulated performances are excellent, and all I can do is try to differentiate degrees of excellence.

In spite of what I’ve just said, A Grand, Grand (Festival) Overture makes singularly great interpretative demands on its performers. It requires of them tremendous insight if they are to realise the true profundity of its emotional and philosophical import.. Neither is it without technical challenges. During the work’s composition, Arnold diligently researched the detailed intonational capabilities of his chosen solo instruments, carefully checking which makes and models would best serve his precise purpose.

The entire effect will, of course, be utterly ruined by sloppy performance preparation. Bluntly, you can’t just make do with any old instruments because the score requires, specifically, three Hoover Vacuum Cleaners in B flat, and one Hoover Floor Polisher in G. However, because they are categorised as "percussion of indefinite pitch", more or less any rifles will do, so long as they shoot straight.

Handley, who is normally a serious-minded and circumspect conductor, has a bit of a rush of blood, choosing a basic tempo that is far too fast. Consequently, he garbles the all-important opening gesture and leaves himself too little headroom for the coda’s critical accelerandi. Nevertheless, even at his helter-skelter pace he miraculously renders the tender counter-subject with consummate grace, observing Arnold’s subtle portamenti with gratifying elegance. Also, he projects the solemn climaxes with tremendous gravity, and coaxes from his organist a depth of tone that is truly awe-inspiring: if you’re an organ buff, then this is the version to have.

However, I harbour serious misgivings about the solo contributions, which are mushily articulated. In particular, their significant final cadenza is indistinct: I cannot unequivocally make out the running down of each instrument as its player is shot – in fact, I was left wondering if the riflemen had missed their targets. And, while I’m at it, why is the firing squad, which should be arrayed with military precision, scattered all over the place, at varying distances and in varying acoustics? These, however, are small points - this is still a fine performance.

Gamba plays it much more cagily. At a steadier tempo, his opening flourish is note-perfect and crystalline, his main allegro vivacious but not hectic, giving space for the subtle lines to blossom, and near-ideally priming the race for the line. Curiously, although very pleasing to the ear, relative to Handley his treatment of the counter-subject is a little matter-of-fact, with rather prim and proper portamenti. Gamba’s climaxes may lack the last ton or two of sheer mass, but in the context of the performance as a whole they still have terrific impact.

Where Gamba really comes up trumps is in having the finer quartet of soloists, who articulate their lines with exquisite sensitivity. Nevertheless, like Handley’s instruments, I had misgivings regarding intonation - I’m not saying they weren’t "on" their notes, merely that I couldn’t make out what those notes actually were. That final cadenza, though, is brought off with great virtuosity: a properly regimented and eagle-eyed firing-squad pick off the soloists one by one, and you can hear each one expiring with, I must say, commendable dignity. Of the recent recordings, Gamba’s takes pride of place as the most sane and balanced view of this modern masterpiece. Now, if we could just persuade the BBC to institute this work as a regular item at the Proms, and each year hold a national referendum on who we’d like to have playing those solos. . .

By the way, does anybody know how loud the solo instruments should sound? On both Handley’s and Gamba’s recordings, they sound much more forceful than on Arnold’s world première. At first I thought this was the result of overdone "spot miking", but then something in the tonal quality led me to suspect that these might be modern instruments. You don’t need me to tell you that this is hardly admissable in a work that demands, above all, absolute adherence to the principles of authentic performance practice.

Of the three conductors, Handley brings Peterloo closest to "Hollywood". Beautifully as he plays the main tune, he tends to distend it into something of a romantic indulgence. In the work’s violent core he gives the formidable percussion their stereophonically spectacular heads, finally expanding the tune into a peroration fit to cap a major symphony. It is a corker of a performance, but to some extent it misses the point.. Whilst still fairly expansive, Gamba is nearer the mark. He plays the tune relatively straight, and keeps those percussion in perspective, allowing the rest of the orchestra its proper chance to wax vicious. However, he too tends to over-egg the conclusive pudding.

The "point" is most eloquently expressed by Arnold himself, who keeps his simple hymn-tune, which has a familiar relationship to the famous "cliché" from the Fifth Symphony, moving along cantabile and, in the desolation and lament following the massacre, reigns supreme in spite of a significantly inferior recording. That reviewer I mentioned earlier thought that Gamba depicted the massacre "without much subtlety". This is true, but it’s also true that Gamba has hit the nail right on the head. Peterloo has a lot in common with Palace Square, which is to say that what’s being depicted isn’t exactly long on subtlety. The composer, candid to a fault, correspondingly left all traces of subtlety out of his "massacre" music.

The Smoke offers a view of London very different from the rosy view of Elgar’s Cockaigne. In fact, because Gamba gets through it in a mere two-thirds of the time that Arnold took, here we have two very different views of London. Gamba’s is a tumultuous, vigorous, virile view, not so much an afternoon’s stroll by the Serpentine as a night of boisterous sleaze-seeking in Soho. In his hands, the weird central section seems to view the materials through an alcoholic haze, and the heaving conclusion is ablaze with flashing neon lights.

Arnold’s picture is far gloomier. At his much slower tempo, he brings out much menace lurking behind the garish façades, percussive detonations shock and stun, and repeated notes acquire a grimly obsessive overtone. The central section becomes an interminable nightmare, like sitting alone and isolated in a dingy bed-sit, staring at a blank wall that reflects dimly the flickering lurid light from nearby neon-signs. Arnold’s snare-drummer creates a spine-tingling, ghostly sound, sounding as if he’s holding the stick loosely and just letting the tip fall onto the drum-skin. There are such amazing disparities between these two interpretations, yet they both work, and work well – I think because both views are inherent in the score, put there by a man who has experienced both sorts of feelings at first hand.

The uproarious musical misadventure of Tam o’Shanter is relatively easy meat, largely because both Handley and Gamba play it to the hilt, leaving reviewers nothing but crumbs on which to comment: for instance, Handley more effectively draws out the long violin crescendo early on, while Gamba’s chase music is marginally the more frenetic, and Handley’s recording has marginally more depth, while Gamba’s is slightly more immediate. Well, sod that for a lark – these are both superlative, gripping and thrilling performances captured in cracking good sound. I’d be over the moon with either. In fact, that’s exactly what I am.

The swings and roundabouts carry on in the Flourish for Orchestra, which is not so much an overture as either a short march or a long fanfare. Courtesy of a sharper kick-off, by the very minutest of margins Handley is the more dynamic. In going for a rounder, fuller sound throughout, with plump timps and a huge tam-tam splash, Handley seems to underline the festive origin of the piece – obvious modal inflections, in both the main subject and the gorgeous melody of the counter-subject, are clearly meant to echo the historical occasion of the 500th. anniversary celebrations of the granting of Bristol’s Charter. Gamba, leaner and cleaner, using much harder drumsticks to thrilling effect, and finding a lot more light and shade in the dynamics, gives us a more concert-oriented performance. Having said that, you might reasonably expect the high trumpets of Gamba’s BBC Philharmonic to be the more incisive, but in fact it’s those of Handley’s BBC Concert Orchestra that, like gleaming silver swords, most effectively cleave the texture.

In both The Fair Field and Sussex overtures, Gamba is bursting with dash and derring-do, sparking showers of fun right, left and centre, whilst by comparison Arnold seems careful, cautious and clod-hopping. The difference is so blatant that I can’t avoid wondering if one of them is being perverse. The question is, which one? Slow as they are, Arnold’s own readings do have distinct plus-points. You can hear every note, every nuance, and yet – almost paradoxically! - the sound Arnold gets from his band is rich and luscious, sound fit to satisfy the basest lusts of the most inveterate "choc-aholic" (for this reason alone I wouldn’t want to be without these recordings!). The problem is that, in spite of some fabulous control of pace within his chosen time-frame, those motoric "development" sections start to sound more morbid than they perhaps should in the context – in spite of the obvious connection between the merry-go-round waltz of The Fair Field and a similar, nightmarish apparition in the finale of the Seventh Symphony.

At the other extreme of tempo, Gamba’s band sounds far brighter and breezier, steering the motoric episodes clear of the rut of morbidity. However, this extreme speed also dilutes the sound and blurs much of the detail of Arnold’s masterly orchestration into generalised brilliance, whilst those tempo changes - like the start of the quicker variation in The Fair Field - tend to just pop up out of the blue. At rock bottom, I think that both Arnold and Gamba are being a bit perverse! Somewhere between the two there is surely a golden mean.

Handley gives a spirited account of the boisterous little Anniversary Overture. Heard in isolation, this would make anyone as happy as Larry, but - in spite of his being a bit quicker – Handley doesn’t find quite the fizz that Gamba does. In view of my previous comments, maybe instead of "in spite of" I should say "as a result of"! For, by easing off his gas pedal, Gamba here allows himself that precious bit of elbow room in which to attend to the tiddly details - like the tinkling metallic percussion that adds tingle to the fluid counter-subject. Small adjustment, big return - this is top-notch stuff.

And so, to Beckus. In this of all his works, as near to a personal trademark as you can get without actually registering it, Arnold really does drag his heels. I do so wish I had one of those fancy digital gubbinses that changes the speed, but not the pitch, of a recording,. Then I could shift Arnold’s recording up a gear and obtain as near as dammit to perfection on legs! Other than a couple of slightly garbled woodwind phrases - presumably taken too slow for the players’ comfort - everything about it bar that funereal tempo is as near ideal as I’ve ever heard.

Yet, like Ruslan and Ludmilla or The Flight of the Bumble Bee, we should be mindful that dear old Beckus is not a racetrack for would-be record-breakers. Beckus is not so much an "overture" as a scherzo with malicious intent. The cheeky child that Arnold encountered on holiday in Cornwall (1943) may have prompted the idea for the piece, but otherwise it is entirely a musical self-portrait. Being also his first really important work, it is significant that here, for the first time, he also lifted the veil from over his troubled mind. A fine balance must be struck between the general run of genial high-jinks, the less-than genial flashes of fury and, around two-thirds of the way through, that dismaying disintegration. This three-way balance depends heavily on getting the timing just right.

The opening flourish drops a fairly strong hint. Listen to Arnold’s recording, and you hear no trace of jollity – right at the very start the glowering gargoyles are hacking at that veil. It is a fearsome gesture, disgorging a lightweight but glutinous texture from which the jolly cornet, with the basses dragging like mud on its shoes, at first struggles to free itself. Both Handley and Gamba – and any number of others – are generally too fleet of foot. Sounds that belong in the shade are bathed in sunshine, geniality becomes brashness, the edges of Arnold’s complicated main theme are blurred, and enraged outbursts are dragooned into becoming purveyors of mere rowdiness. This last can be a real pitfall, as those outbursts are - or should be - dangerously threatening disruptions. In other words, we lose the deeply shocking edge off the violent contrasts inherent in the music.

However, I did only say "edge"! Although they may be slightly wide of the "meaning" mark, these are by no means poor performances. The difference between Gamba and Handley is similar to that in the Anniversary Overture. Going at it full tilt, Handley tends to blanket everything with the same high-octane aggression. On the other hand, Gamba’s investment in a few extra, precious seconds does pay dividends: his violence may not be as highly charged, but his contrasting of geniality and violence is more marked. That gubbins I mentioned would again have been useful - only this time to slow Gamba and Handley down a bit.

The Robert Kett Overture, which here gets its première recording, is one of the last pieces that Arnold wrote (1990). In their recent biography, Tony Meredith and Paul Harris accurately describe this and the contemporaneous A Manx Suite and Flourish for Battle as "threadbare works, damaging to his reputation". Yet, in a way, once we become aware of the circumstances in which these pieces were written, nothing could be further from the truth. For then, in hearing them, there is a heart-rending poignancy that has absolutely nothing to do with the notes. Instead, we are moved to tears by what we know to be a great dynamo that has finally run out of steam, a once immensely vibrant creative spirit struggling to continue "doing what came naturally" - when in fact it is irretrievably burnt out.

And yet . . . and yet – how can I put this? I know: there are still quite a few tufts of decent stuffing tucked inside that threadbare upholstery! Granted, the structure seems, and probably is rambling, even incoherent, and the vacuous, tub-thumping conclusion threatens to turn the work into a cheap imitation of the Grand, Grand Overture. However, the opening gesture is thoroughly arresting in Arnold’s finest cinematographic manner, the slender-sounding "fife-and-drum" tune is subsequently amplified to uproarious effect and, unless my memory plays me false, we hear for the first (and only?) time one of Arnold’s characteristic "street whistle" glissandi in the bass!

There is even something for musicologists and psychologists to ponder on. The romantic counter-subject is a dead ringer for one of the two sentimental subjects of the second movement of the Fourth Symphony. Of course, it’s tempting to dismiss this as merely an "obvious" symptom of the demise of Arnold’s fertile muse, but I wouldn’t be so hasty. He had lost his physical vitality and was still struggling to recover from dreadful trauma, but his mind remained, as it does to this day, as sharp as a razor. I would be very surprised if Arnold hadn’t quoted himself, consciously or otherwise, for some very good reason. What’s more, in spite of everything he does find a little bit of something new to expand on the original idea.

It seems to me that Rumon Gamba does everything in his power to fan the guttering flame back to life, coaxing the BBCPO to play their socks off. Yet, strange though it may seem at first, at no point does he seem to press the music forward beyond its "natural" tempo. The opening gesture is broad and laden with portent, the "fifing" piccolo sounds as chirpy as you please, at a tempo where the tuba stands a fighting chance of emulating its far more agile cousin, and the "Fourth Symphony" theme is allowed to flow with modestly seductive languor. The more boisterous music is projected with luxuriant amplitude – the trombone slides, by the way, are electrifying! - and a seemingly boundless energy that will, I am sure, bring a smile of satisfaction to its composer. As they say, "for a first attempt this ain’t at all bad"!

The one real disappointment about this collection of "overtures" – a couple of which aren’t really overtures at all - is that it doesn’t include the marvellous Commonwealth Christmas Overture, with its hilariously enchanting "Calypso" episode. But, even if you took out the "non-overtures", at around 18 minutes’ duration it still couldn’t have been fitted onto the CD. So, for the time being at least, we’ll have to carry on making do with the composer’s own (fortunately superb) recording. Maybe, one fine day, Chandos and Gamba will get around to it?

Throughout, and to a "man", the BBC Philharmonic play brilliantly under Gamba’s energetic direction. As of right now, is there any band more dedicated to the promotion of Arnold’s music? "Commitment" may be a word that is done to death these days, but these folk simply ooze it. They scarcely put a toe, never mind a whole foot, wrong. The sounds that they make, from solos and gossamer chamber-music textures right up to the heftiest tutti, are a constant source of immense pleasure (provided you don’t "over-eat", eh?). In this, they seem to be complemented by the combination of the dry but clear acoustic of Studio 7 and the characteristically ambience-loaded recording of the Chandos engineers: these sort of average out to give what is a very nice overall bloom.

Arnold fanatics and completists will need no encouragement, from me or anybody else. Otherwise I’d say: if you happen to have only the LPO/Arnold recording, then you really do need to supplement it with either Gamba or Handley. If you already have Handley then, unless you’re desperate for the non-duplicated items, you can rest easy with what you have. Otherwise, go get Gamba!

BOOK REVIEWS

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

Malcolm Arnold - Rogue Genius: The Life and Music of Britain’s most misunderstood composer

Paul Serotsky

see also review by John Quinn

 



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