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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)
English Dancesa (1950s): Set 1, Op. 27 [10’11]; Set 2, Op. 33 [7:13]
Solitaire (1956) – Sarabande [5:39]; Polka [2:46]
Irish Dances, Op. 126 (1986) [9:28]
Scottish Dances, Op. 59a (1957) [10:33]
Cornish Dances, Op. 91a (1966) [12:40]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Arnold.
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It is somewhat surprising that in this, his 85th year, one of England’s finest living composers is absent from this year’s BBC Proms. Here is a man who completed his Ninth Symphony over twenty years ago, hoping that it would be the last composition that he wrote. Surely some kind of celebration could have been possible? Given the lack of attention granted to Arnold recently, it is doubly welcome to have the current set of recordings back in circulation. The CD couples the sets of English, Scottish and Cornish dances recorded in 1979 with the later set of Irish dances recorded in 1990 although the booklet does not give recording dates or venues. Arnold had a long relationship with the London Philharmonic, having been appointed principal trumpet in 1942, at the tender age of 21. It comes as no surprise then that the results of these recordings are very happy indeed.

Arnold is a composer with an extraordinary grasp of orchestration and a great facility for integrating popular idioms and rather more modernist techniques. However, whereas many composers would take less care over ‘light music’ miniatures, Arnold in the sets of regional dances on this disc, lavished just as much attention to detail as can be found in his symphonies.

The disc opens with the two sets of English Dances. These, amongst Arnold’s most popular works, were composed in the early 1950s at the suggestion of his publisher to ‘try his hand at something like Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. There are similarities between the two sets of works in that both composers, whilst certainly influenced by local dance forms, managed to evoke the spirit of their respective countries without resorting to pre-existing folk tunes.

Each of the eight (in total) English Dances is distinct from the others. The opening Andantino is a graceful waltz with a pleasing melody initially played by strings that contrasts with rather more craggy brass sonorities in the central section. Exuberant brass fanfares open the Vivace, displaying the rhythmic dexterity of the LPO trumpets of the day and featuring some excellent horn playing elsewhere. Arnold’s own distinctive interpretation of his own works is evident in the ensuing Mesto, substantially slower than most rivals (a full fifty per-cent longer than Groves for EMI in 1976, EMI British Composers CDZ5747802). He gives his players extra space to phrase and nuance the material in a more vocal way. Whilst the result is very beautiful, some may miss an element of folk-song that is present when played at a more flowing tempo. The concluding movement of the first set, Allegro risoluto finds its numerous hemiolae and syncopations dispatched with great élan. It was here, however, that I first noticed how the otherwise excellent recorded sound is a little too reverberant for this music, giving the orchestra a big, beefy sound that some might find inappropriate.

The generally excellent standard of playing continues in the second set of English Dances. Number 2, Con brio, features some particularly perky wind playing and some nicely characterised brass band-esque passages. The conclusion is hugely exciting and uplifting. The following grazioso once again takes the form of a waltz, its wistfulness enhanced by the modal inflections and harmonic pedals. After a more positive brass climax the music subsides to the accompaniment of evocative bells. The last of these English Dances is an absolute joy, Arnold using numerous rhythmic tricks to generate excitement. The spectacular conclusion (lento e maestoso) finds trombones declaiming a folk-like melody against the rest of the orchestra. However, this does highlight the fact that trombones and trumpets are far too prominent in the recorded balance in comparison to the wind and horns.

The two sets of English Dances proved so popular that the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan decided to utilise them for a ballet, Solitaire, at Sadler’s Wells in 1956. To the existing eight movements Arnold added another two, a Sarabande and Polka. The former is a melancholy piece, highly lyrical yet with an occasional moment of dissonance. The performance here is outstandingly beautiful, sensitive and restrained. Wind solos are exquisitely taken and the strings soar as if one instrument. The witty Polka comes as a complete contrast. Its cheeky opening melody (for two piccolos) will stay with you (against your will, no doubt) for days. The brass are suitably raucous at times with many a clichéd trombone slide. Indeed, it is an immensely humorous performance, generally dead-pan but with the occasional witty moment. However, it is definitely one of the lesser pieces on the disc.

In contrast to the exuberant, charming and always melodious English Dances, the Irish Dances of 1986 show a new toughness and astringency to the musical language far more in keeping with the roughly contemporaneous Ninth Symphony. Arnold himself has said of that troubled, despairing work that it came after a five year period during which he had ‘been through Hell’ (from an interview with Andrew Penny on Naxos’ recording of the symphony, Naxos 8.553540, 1996). Sonorities are often of a far darker hue and textures starker. This is immediately noticeable in the opening Allegro con energico with its driving tenor drum and in the dissonant string counterpoint in the following Commodo. Despite a brief interjection of a wind quartet, the latter piece is written entirely for strings, and elegiac lament that is a far cry from the grace and/or wistfulness of the slower numbers of the English Dances. Number three, Piacevole is built almost entirely on a descending sequence of yearning dissonances heard at the outset and, whilst the concluding Vivace is in the form of a jig, it also is highly dissonant. Given the decade between these recordings and the other items on the disc, the results are remarkably consistent in terms of both sound and level of orchestral polish.

The remaining two sets of dances, the Scottish and Cornish, predictably fall between the extremes of the English and Irish. The Pesante opening dance of the Scottish set contains the typical elements of ‘Scottish’ music - bagpipes are imitated by drone trombones and the ubiquitous ‘Scotch snap’ - elements similar to those of Hungarian folk-music, explaining why the opening is more than a little reminiscent of Bartók. That said, it is not long before the music acquires some of Arnold’s typical rhythmic drive and harmonic signature. The Scottish dance-form of the ‘reel’ is employed for the Vivace, a repeating melody that constantly rises in pitch. The (excellent) booklet notes how ‘the bassoonist seems to be drunk’ in one variation. All credit to the LPO’s principal bassoon for conveying this vividly without a hint of vulgarity. After a sweet, romantic Allegretto - lovely flute playing - Arnold concocts a typically exuberant Con brio, performed with all the verve and excitement that one has come to expect from this disc.

It may have occurred to the reader that the order of programming on this disc makes no chronological sense in terms of composition date or recording date. But there could be no better way to end this disc than with the fabulous Cornish Dances. Arnold lived in Cornwall for a number of years in the 1960s and was apparently very happy there. That is borne out in these four affectionately witty, sometimes slyly parodic miniatures. The opening Vivace takes a pastiche sea-song theme and cycles it through too many keys to mention, the orchestration dominated by horns and brass, who play with boisterous excitement. The Andantino that follows is perhaps the most extraordinary track on the disc. The mysteriously shimmering strings and bells that accompany the chromatically winding wind lines at the outset suggest perhaps a mist shrouded fishing trawler at sea; the effect is certainly eerie and the immense cymbal rolls at the heart of the movement would certainly suggest something nautical. Arnold creates a peculiar air of stasis at this point with use of dissonant note clusters. The playing in this movement is extremely delicate and the balance immaculate. As a point of interest, Arnold himself with the CBSO in 1972 (EMI British Composers CDZ5747802) took a full minute less than he does here, and the same can be said of the following con moto. Labelled sempre parodia, this movement provides some light relief, a parody of a sentimental sea song or hymn as played by an increasingly blatant brass band. The tambourine player even gets ‘lost’ at the end, resulting in an impromptu solo before the final chord. The final allegro ma non troppo juxtaposes two distinct ideas, both building in intensity before a suitably noisy climax.

All in all, then, a superb disc. The quality of playing throughout is magnificent, the orchestra obviously responding to the authority of the composer. The sound quality is frequently spectacular - sometimes a little too much - certainly finer than much of the competition. A first choice for this repertoire then? Yes and, indeed, no. Since this disc’s original release in 1990, Arnold has added a set of Welsh Dances. These can be found on a single Naxos CD (Naxos 8.553526) along with the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh sets. If you want all of them, you have little choice. If you can do without the Welsh Dances, then this Lyrita CD is without question the one to have.

Owen E. Walton

see also review by Colin Clarke


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