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Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 71 (1960)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Arnold
rec. no info supplied. DDD (1990)

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Recordings of music directed by their own composer have an in-built value, and when that conductor is one of the best-loved and most highly respected of composers among musicians, you can expect stunning results.

Malcolm Arnold would have been around 69 when this recording was made – certainly no spring chicken, but even with the slower tempi in this performance there is no sense of this being a ‘tired’ or old man’s recording. The commitment from the players is beyond question, and with an audible, almost incredible attention to detail in the playing this is a rather special CD to have.

I know and admire Vernon Handley’s Arnold cycle, but do not have his Liverpool Philharmonic recording to hand. Comparing timings with Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland you might think that there had been some shenanigans with cuts or missed repeats – 13:00 opposed to Arnold’s 18:48 in the first movement, and 11:36 against 18:40 in the third Andantino. Listeners who are used to other versions should suspend their expectations, sit back and allow the great man to tell the story as he came to hear it 30 years after it was first performed.

The booklet notes deal extensively with the exotic percussion used, the relationship between popular and classical music whose barriers Arnold was always keen to blur, and also provides brief analyses of each movement. The overall impression is one of deeper understanding, and to my ears, greater stature for this work.

The first movement is a case in point. The mood at each point of this musical journey is filled with double-entendre challenges – rattling percussion inviting dance or implying military menace, strings draping themselves across the winds like Mantovani. It seems a shame that ‘that tune’ at 3:25 comes out a little slower than the previous section – I originally suspected an edit and a tea break – but it rolls along sweetly enough, right up to that crackingly sardonic dissonance at 5:52 which makes your trousers fall down, instantly. When it returns at 11:57 (and 16:02) something similar happens with the tempo, so MA knew what he was doing after all – silly me, with my trousers around my ankles. If you were in any doubt as to the wisdom of the pacing of this movement, hang on until the brass counterpoint at 7:02, which echoes on in the memory long after all the lights have gone out. There is no drama missing in the development either, which would fit in well in any James Bond chase sequence. You will love the laughing horns at 14:06 as well – the list goes on…

There are some remarkable effects in the second Vivace ma non troppo movement, with some orchestral colours you may not have noticed before. Arnold gives himself space to allow each nuance to develop properly, each quasi-quote to suggest and tease, keeping the listener on the edge of his seat – if he can remain seated.

The third Andantino movement is a monument of suspense, a sustained, slowly rocking brace of melodies being drawn out into an adagio-rondo of Mahlerian proportions. The little touches of orchestral brilliance are beautifully understated, glissandi in the brass just peeping through, slight portamenti in the strings in one or two places, and superbly played solos. The whole thing is like a Rembrandt etching engraved on a block of gold: weighty, richly colourful, but with a simplicity of line which is uniquely Arnold.

Fugue-like finales are not unknown phenomena, but Arnold whips up a brutal wake-up call to drive away the reveries of the third movement. The military march at 6:28 tears down the pompous artifice of bristling moustaches and polished uniforms as effectively in music as Michael Bentine did in words, and the penultimate string apotheosis at 8:25 is an object lesson for all our 1990s tintinnabulists.

The recording is superb. From rumbling bass drums to sparkling percussion - tuned or untuned, the ear is given a treat which will linger, and for which the brain will demand refreshment at unbidden moments. This may not be the ‘definitive’ Arnold 4, but no fan of his should be without this version, which turns a remarkable and memorable symphonic achievement into a 20th century masterpiece. It’s certainly one to which it’s worth raising a symbolic ‘pint of Pimms’.

Dominy Clements

see also review by Colin Clarke

The Lyrita Recorded Edition



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