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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Arnold conducts Arnold
CD1
Symphony No. 1, Op. 22 (1949) [39:09]
Solitaire – Sarabande and Polka (1956) [8:41]
Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 hands), Op.104 (1969) [14:21]
Tam O'Shanter, Op. 51 (1955 [7:55]
English Dances 3 and 5 (1950) [5:35]
CD2
Beckus the Dandipratt, Op. 5 - Comedy Overture (1944) [7:23]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 40 (1953) [25:21]
Overture: Peterloo, Op. 97 (1967) [9:01]
Symphony No. 5, Op. 74 (1961) [33:35]
Phyllis Sellick, Cyril Smith (pianos, concerto)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Sy 1, Solitaire), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (concerto, Peterloo, Sy 5), Philharmonia Orchestra (Tam, Dances), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Beckus, Sy 2)
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, 17 October 1955 (Sy 2, Beckus); De Montfort Hall, 13-14 June 1972 (Sy 5, Peterloo), 18-19 June 1970 (concerto); Winter Gardens, Bournemouth, 5-6 April 1979 (1, Solitaire); Kingsway Hall, 19 September 1955 (Tam, 3, 5). ADD. Stereo/Mono (Philharmonia; RPO)
EMI CLASSICS BRITISH COMPOSERS 382146-2 [76:11 + 75:48]



This generous collection of performances of Arnold’s music under his own direction brings together recordings set down for EMI between 1955 and 1979. The exceptions are the versions of Beckus the Dandipratt and the Second Symphony, which were made for Phillips, which is now part of Universal Music Group who, very happily, have licensed these recordings for inclusion by EMI.
 
It’s particularly good to have three of the composer’s own recordings of his symphonies – the Fourth, of course, is on Lyrita. All three performances here are excellent. In the First Arnold gets really committed playing from the Bournemouth orchestra. Already, in this very confident first foray into symphonic form, I hear echoes of Mahler and Shostakovich. What I note particularly is Arnold’s ability to sustain tension as a conductor and to command the listener’s attention, not just when the music is loud but in quieter passages too. I’d be interested to know if he was self-taught as a conductor – I’m not aware that he had any formal tuition.
 
The Second Symphony is my own favourite among the nine. We are fortunate to have this recording in two respects. Piers Burton-Page relates in his admirable note that the recording came about because Beecham cancelled some sessions. Furthermore, the master tapes have been lost and this very successful transfer has been taken from LPs. What luxury for Arnold to have Beecham’s orchestra at his disposal and players of the calibre of, say, the late Gwydion Brooke to play the ghostly bassoon solo at the start of the third movement. Perhaps it was the corporate virtuosity available to him that encouraged Arnold to take the second movement as fast as I’ve ever heard it. The helter-skelter music whizzes by in less than four minutes and the playing has great bite and joie de vivre. The Mahlerian slow movement is very well done indeed and when, at 4:59, the music is revealed in the guise of a death march the effect is particularly powerful. Like the second movement, the finale is taken at a tremendous lick and the brass-led fugue, hugely reminiscent of the last movement of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth symphony, has tremendous power. The booklet includes a wonderful session photo of a seemingly carefree Arnold and the orchestra. For all that there are dark moments in this symphony one senses that great fun was had by all in the making of this recording.
 
With the Fifth Symphony we come to what may be Arnold’s finest, most well-rounded symphony. This work, and the Peterloo Overture, a product of the same sessions, benefits from splendidly rich EMI analogue sound of the 1970s vintage. Piers Burton-Page rightly draws attention to the ambivalence behind the work; the listener is always wondering what’s below the surface of the music. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the slow movement, which features a melody that is generously lyrical even by Arnold’s standards. Burton-Page describes it as “deep-throated” and it can certainly induce a lump in the listener’s throat. But is this lovely melody all that it seems? Arnold builds it to a towering climax, where it’s clear some demons lurk. Eventually, towards the very end of the movement (9:13) we’re allowed another glimpse of the melody in its original gentle state, by which time the listener may feel that glimpse has been earned. The CBSO players bring the necessary rhythmic dexterity to the third movement. Then, in the finale, after several appearances of pipe-and-drum music, Arnold presents the apotheosis of the slow movement’s main melody and the first time listener assumes we’re in for a Big Finish. But no! In a masterstroke, the music subsides very quickly into a short, subdued ending which leaves the listener with more questions than answers. The composer obtains a very fine performance indeed.
 
Besides the symphonies the set includes a number of shorter delights. The most substantial is the concerto that Arnold wrote for Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. This work was premièred at the 1969 Proms and was a huge success, the promenaders demanding – and getting - an immediate encore of the finale. (The first performance was included in the marvellous pair of CDs issued by BBC Radio Classics to mark Arnold’s 75th birthday. Sadly, that set is long out of print but if it ever reappears Arnold aficionados should snap it up.) This recording is splendid, even without the stimulus of a live audience. The slow movement, which in some ways reminds me very much of the comparable movement in Ravel’s G major concerto, is beautifully done – it’s very sincere music – and the hugely enjoyable finale is great fun – as it should be.
 
We are also treated to Arnold’s three best-known overtures. What Piers Burton-Page aptly describes as the “controlled orchestral mayhem” that is Tam O’Shanter comes across very well. The 1955 recording reports the highly inventive orchestration very well and Arnold conducts with huge zest – sample the boozy trombone at 1:56. This is a work written by a man who was not only possessed of a great musical imagination but one whose superb skills as an orchestrator were based on his intimate knowledge of the symphony orchestra from within. Beckus the Dandipratt is presented as a “Comedy Overture”, just as Arnold entitled it. I found it fascinating to compare this performance with the one that Arnold set down with the London Philharmonic in 1991 (Reference Recordings RR-48CD). In 1991 the work required 10:45 compared with 7:23 in 1955. That’s a huge difference in so short a piece. The 1955 performance is given with great brio, beside which the much slower 1991 version, frankly, sounds lame. This expansiveness does seem to be something of a feature of Arnold’s later recordings: it’s as if, after all the troubles in his life, he viewed his earlier works “through a glass, darkly”. The Peterloo Overture was commissioned by the British Trades Union Congress to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 – I tried to imagine today’s TUC issuing a similar commission but my imagination isn’t that fanciful! I was struck by Piers Burton-Page’s reference to Charles Ives in connection with this work – what an apt comparison! As he very rightly observes, in this work Arnold’s “twin obsessions of light and dark were powerfully juxtaposed”. The CBSO deliver superbly for Arnold and I mean it as a compliment when I say that this is a first-rate performance of first-rate programme music.
 
That leaves the four “fillers” in the shape of two dances from Arnold’s two sets of English Dances and the two movements from Solitaire. Though it’s a pity that we only get two of the Dances it’s quite apt that they appear beside the two pieces from Solitaire as those were the two additions that Arnold made when, in 1956, Kenneth MacMillan turned the English Dances into a ballet and wanted a couple of extra movements. I defy anyone to listen to the delightfully zany Polka without laughing.
 
This is a quite splendid set and the only sadness is that it now appears as a posthumous tribute. For newcomers to Arnold’s music it offers an excellent introduction. Seasoned Arnold collectors may already have some of these recordings in their collection but the chance to acquire the 1955 RPO recordings, never before issued on CD, makes the set a most attractive proposition, even if some duplication is involved. Either way, this is an indispensable issue.
 
John Quinn



And another perspective from Rob Barnett

I took one quick glance at the contents and knew this was the predictable collection drawn from EMI’s 1970s archives. Only partly right. Look again. It says Arnold conducts Arnold and it includes the Second Symphony.
 
The first disc, right enough, is a straight reissue of CDM7 640442 from 1991. The second disc is not the same as CDM7 633682 topped up with a ‘new’ Beckus. Certainly that’s the same CBSO/Arnold Fifth Symphony first issued on LP circa 1972 coupled with the Cornish Dances and Peterloo (ASD2878). But the Second Symphony on CDM7 633682 had Charles Groves conducting his old stable-mate the Bournemouth Symphony in July 1976. This Second Symphony is conducted by Arnold and the orchestra is the RPO and it’s in mono. Recorded in 1955 it catches the thirty-four year old dynamo delivering a performance in spate: 25:21 against Groves’ 27:42, Penny’s 27:13 and Hickox’s 31:02. This first version of No. 2 was recorded by Philips and issued on that label on NBL5021. There it was in harness with this Beckus and with John Hollingsworth’s Tam.
 
The tragic and tensely Sibelian First Symphony was issued on LP as EMI Classics ASD3823. It had been premiered by the composer conducting the Hallé at the Cheltenham Festival in 1951. You can hear that Bournemouth EMI recording if you can find CDM7 640442. Rather like the composer’s Lyrita recording of his Fourth Symphony [see review] it is taken at a slow pace (39:08) as if the composer was relishing the memories, dwelling on the joys and pains reflected in each bar. For me that recording is something special and it’s the version by which I came to know the piece. Compare this with the less plangent and certainly speedier Naxos at 28:27 and the vivid and explosively recorded 30:13 of Hickox/LSO on Chandos CHAN 9335. The trouble with these is that they sound almost perfunctory after the composer’s tranced, slow-motion, gaze into this Sibelian dynamo of the emotions. Handley is even more urgently whipped forward and Tapiola-stormy. He takes the RLPO through the work in 27:12 – the fastest by far. Yet it works … and the recording is extraordinarily rich and multi-layered. Just listen to the discreetly chattered horn fanfare at 02:00 in I. Shortly after, one wonders at 2:35, whether the very recent example of Walton in the pre-battle morning stirrings of Henry V had lodged in his mind.
 
The Fifth Symphony, written from the heart – and a deeply troubled one at that - in a style guaranteed to displease the artistic bureaucracy and academic elite of the time - faced even more of a struggle. It was completed in 1960, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival – still welcoming at that stage - but not given its first BBC radio performance until 1 May 1967. The Fifth is amongst the finest Arnold. With the First and the Eighth it is a good place to start your exploration of the Arnold symphonies. It was the last of the symphonies that the composer himself was able to conduct complete. Its inspiration was found in the deaths of four close friends and the shuddering end of his first marriage. Arnold directing the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at De Montfort Hall, Leicester University in June 1972 takes 33:18 by comparison with Penny’s 32:37. The CBSO original was first issued on LP as ASD 2878 with the Four Cornish Dances and the inconsequential Peterloo Overture. Penny’s is a strong account and as ever with this Naxos set there are many imaginative touches including the affectionately insinuating way the symphony starts. The Hickox is not far off the norm at 32:34 and this time is captured (with the Sixth Symphony) in superb Chandos sound on CHAN9385. After this issue Hickox dropped the cycle or Chandos dropped Hickox; I do not know which.
 
In the Concerto for Three Hands Two Pianos (aka Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril) everything is unbuttoned and the hair is completely let down. Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith are the undiluted article – although this may leave you squirming with embarrassment in the finale. However the first movement is one of Arnold’s grandest inspirations while the Andante is one of his most leisurely drippingly sentimental slow movements. The work is heard at its most extended on this original EMI recording. Intriguingly the same pair take it a minute slower on the version recorded with the BBCSO at the Proms on 16 August 1969. There is another explosively recommendable version on IMP Carlton BBC Radio Classics (deleted). Also splendid is the recording made by the redoubtable Boult pupil Douglas Bostock on RLPO Live with Antonio Piricone and Martin Roscoe.
 
You don’t know Arnold until you have heard these recordings. He continues to surprise and delight.
 
Rob Barnett

 

 

 


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