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Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
The Sound Barrier, Op. 38 (1952) [7:09]
Eight English Dances, Opp. 27 and 33 (1951) [8:17, 9:22]
Homage to the Queen, Op. 42 (1953) [42:42]
Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59 (1957) [8:40]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Irving
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Arnold (Sound Barrier)
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 16 January 1957 (Sound Barrier); Kingsway Hall, London, 11-12 June 1953 (Homage to Queen, English Dances), 18 June 1957 (Scottish Dances)
British Composers series
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 66120 2 0 [76:58]

Time has not been tender to the composerís RPO recording of The Sound Barrier rhapsody and the results in this voluptuous and grandiloquent work are scrawny. That said, you can soon enough listen past the grittiness and rasp. Itís clearly a significant document in the composerís discography so it is good to have it but its interest is primarily for Arnold specialists.

Robert Irvingís name is largely forgotten these days. He was born in Winchester on 28 August 1913 and died there on 13 September 1991. He found transient fame as a ballet conductor although going by the breathtaking clip at which hew takes the Vivace of the first set of English Dances (tr. 3) this did not cramp his orchestral style in the studio. He studied at the RCM with Constant Lambert (whose Horoscope suite he recorded) and Malcolm Sargent. Just after World War II he landed the† principal conductor job with Sadler's Wells Ballet and was there until 1958. He then shipped off to the USA as music director of the New York City Ballet. He remained there until retirement in 1989. His input into the major Stravinsky season in 1972 involved coverage of all 22 of the composerís ballets. He also worked with Martha Graham in her companyís New York seasons 1960-1965, 1974-1977. He guest conducted with the Royal Ballet from 1978.

The scene having been set we can hear almost an hour of Arnoldís music conducted by Irving. And by the way despite being older these Irving recordings sound in very good heart; certainly better than the Sound Rhapsody. Thereís just that patina of edge on the strings but itís really modest. As you will have gathered, Irving directs brawny and rollicking vigorous performances of the Eight English Dances; not that he does colour and pace with lissom pastoral poetry when required as in the typical Grazioso (tr. 8) where the template was perhaps George Butterworthís Banks of Green Willow. Irving would have encountered these dances as the Kenneth Macmillan ballet Solitaire in June 1956. Arnold added a Sarabande and a Polka †for Solitaire. Surprisingly this was not recorded by Irving but can be heard directed by the composer in the 1960s on EMI and again in the 1980s on Lyrita. The disc closes with a rapt and gaudy performance of the Four Scottish Dances. This deserves to be counted with the composerís own recordings on Phoenix and Lyrita. While the uproarious dissenting curse of the tartan hangs over much of this music the Allegretto ranks as one of the worldís most meltingly beautiful treasures. If you donít know it you owe it to yourself to hear it. Irving and the Philharmonia turn in what must be one of the most explosive and virtuoso performances ever of the final Con Brio.

I would take with a pinch of salt any suggestion that his studio recordings show any tendency to slowness to accommodate the demands of dance. Where it is almost visually apparent is in the major ballet score Homage to the Queen. This is a most inventive 45 minute piece and is by no means a sequence continuing the English Dances. The movements are: Prelude and Opening Scene, Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Finale. The writing is at times lissom and full of grace and in this mode recalls Barberís underrated dance suite Souvenirs which would make a superb concert partner for Homage. Then again the Fire section rattles and rages with fury amid whooping horns and abrasive percussion, mechanistic or threateningly stilled. Is it any wonder that some of the writing recalls Arthur Bliss, that other master of English ballet music.

With a fascinatingly inventive major ballet score and rapturously performed recordings of the dances this is ranks high in the Arnold treasury.

Rob Barnett


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