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Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Little Suite No. 1, Op.53 (1955) [8:32]
Concerto for 28 Players, Op.105 (1970) [20:23]
Little Suite No. 2, Op.78 (1963) [8:43]
Variations for Orchestra on a Theme of Ruth Gipps, Op.122 (1977) [11:11] *
A Manx Suite, (Little Suite No. 3), Op.142 (1990) [9:05] *
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, 12-13 July 1996. DDD
* premiere recordings
CHANDOS CHAN 9509 [58:00]




The contrasting Malcolm Arnolds are on display here but in none of these five works is he anything other than succinct. The three Little Suites reach from the glorious 1950s and 1960s as far as 1990. They are indeed little and they put no strain on the attention of the listener. That they are modest in duration however does not mean that they are trivial in impact. The first two Little Suites are each in three movements. No. 1 has a stately and noble – almost Elgarian Prelude. It is marked Maestoso and it is given a generously broad gait. The Allegretto sings with a young heart. Arnold is gifted this way and no doubt it carries the engaging slightly sentimental manner of his film music. There is a rumbustious Waltonian March conclusion similar in manner to sections of the recently BBC revived overture Metropolis by the late John Veale. This is decked with irresistibly throaty bird-song inflected chirps providing an ostinato above which a masculine ebullience lofts the march on high in a manner we know from the English Dances. No. 2 is similarly short. The Overture is optimistic, magnificently orchestrated and serenading in its manner. The central Ballad is at first a far more haunted affair than the Allegretto of No. 1. Not that it does not soon find a lyric touch in best commercial manner but it is hesitant and there is some dark occlusion. The Vivace has the dance vigour of counterpart movements by Creston or Harris and the use of bongos and pattering and clicking percussion emphasises an element which we also hear in the Commonwealth Christmas Overture and five years later in the Fourth Symphony. The Manx Suite is his Third Little Suite which was premiered by the Manx Youth Orchestra conducted by Alan Pickard. The five movements are despatched in just over nine minutes. The music is drawn directly from Manx folk songs and in the last two movements Arnold simply orchestrates a single melodic line; the one exception being a light but magically atmospheric touch on the tam-tam at the start and end of the longish Lento.

The Concerto for 28 Players is a late-ish piece written in St Merryn in Cornwall. It was premiered on 25 April 1970 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London by the ECO with the composer conducting. As I mentioned in my review of the concertos volume of Decca’s splendid Malcolm Arnold Edition this is a work of thrumming tension. It is suggestive of Bernard Herrmann in the stalking and ruthlessly hunting power of the first movement. There is also something of Britten’s Serenade in the tautly fanfaring string writing of the finale. This is a work dating from some of Arnold’s darkest days as the Cornish period came to an end and the Irish sojourn began … and it shows especially in the ambiguities and diaphanously tentative mastery of the central Larghetto. Two years in the future lay the similarly inclined Seventh Symphony but only the year before there had been the hysterically ebullient Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril.

Arnold wrote the intriguing Gipps Variations in 1977. Typically they are the length of a concert overture and in that span we hear an Introduction and Theme as well as six variations. All seven movements are separately tracked. The Variations are well worth hearing – a tribute from one neglected composer to another. In them there is nothing tentative. Arnold injects doses of dodecaphonic material into this work and Gipps must have wondered as she was well known as a rejectionist of the Second Viennese School. Alongside such adventures we also get interludes that are strongly suggestive of RVW. The theme is, by the way, from Gipps 1953 Coronation March.

There are good notes by Mervyn Cooke.

The Little Suites for orchestra are good to have all on a single disc. There’s no doubting that they are packed with vintage Arnold even if the later movements of the Manx Suite can be pretty spartan. The Concerto is the best version to be had and like the rest of the disc it is superbly recorded - better than the Conifer original with Handley conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra on vol. 2 of the Decca Edition. The Gipps Variations are intriguing material for Arnold fans.

Hickox and his orchestra together with the Chandos technical team are represented at their very best on this disc. I have been something of a critic of this conductor for what I have occasional felt was a rather impersonal conveyor belt approach to British music but here I have nothing but praise for his insight and grasp of the idiom.

Rob Barnett


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