have to confess I have never much bothered with the music of
Malcolm Arnold. This disc was sent to me for review as an un-requested
bonus and it seemed a welcome opportunity to do a little catching
up. Back in the days when Lyrita made their first, brief, attempt
at issuing CDs, I bought the 4th Symphony and the
Dances conducted by the composer. I enjoyed them at the time
but have not returned to them. I also remember hearing a broadcast
of the première of Symphony no. 6 and having mixed feelings
about it. I recently enjoyed Tam O’Shanter in a spirited recording
under Alexander Gibson
and I must have Beckus the Dandipratt somewhere on an old LP.
of course, there’s his film music. I remember thinking, as I
heard that haunting theme for “Whistle Down the Wind”, that
this music ought to be known beyond the cinema. But I quickly
realized it could not be since it is too short-winded to serve
any function except in the original film context.
writer of the liner notes, Paul Harris, points out the similarity
between the “Whistle Down the Wind” theme and that of the “Fantasy
for Flute and Clarinet”. But the problem is not resolved. Once
the attractive opening music has run its course, Arnold changes
direction, does nothing in particular for a bit, then goes back
to the opening theme. And that’s it.
here, for me, is the trouble with practically everything on
this disc. It’s a jamboree of non sequiturs. So many pieces
start off with a jaunty little motive, often not much more than
an arpeggio, insufficiently pithy to sustain even the few seconds
required of it. Then, when it’s run out of steam, or a little
after that, he just stops and goes off at a tangent.
people evidently find this hilarious, thought-provoking, even
“Mahlerian”. I suppose that, if one knows the sad facts behind
it, the “Duo for Two Clarinets”, written after serious mental
illness and several years of compositional silence, could be
found a moving portrayal of a shattered mind; a mind grasping
motives from his younger days that flee before they come into
focus. I think it would certainly work as the sound-track to
a film about some such situation. But I wonder if we can really
read so much into it. Does it not simply bear witness to a composer
whose music never amounted to much more than nothing, and who
could no longer disguise the fact?
to show that I kept on trying to find something more, I thought
the “Andantino” from the “Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet”
a touching little piece. The “Fantasy for Clarinet” (solo) sees
Arnold getting to grips with his material and composing something
worthwhile for an unpromising medium. I enjoyed most of the
“Suite Bourgeoise”. Not so much the Prelude which starts contrapuntally
but ducks the issues with the usual non sequiturs. But the following
pieces are well-written light music, reminding us that at his
best Arnold might be considered a sort of minor English equivalent
of Jean Françaix.
see Michael Cookson’s review
for a much more positive response. The fact that the few pieces
I enjoyed were those where the music is allowed to blossom and
develop rather than go off at a tangent, may be more my problem
than Arnold’s. On the other hand, readers who similarly expect
music to blossom and develop, to face the issues, rather than
go off at a tangent in the hope people will find it funny, may
share my perplexities.
Cookson mentions having heard the “Suite Bourgeoise” in a version
for flute, oboe and piano. It’s played by flute, oboe and piano
here too, so presumably the Naxos title is just wrong and there
is no version with clarinet.
am quite sure that my dissatisfaction has nothing to do with
the performances or recordings. In particular, the hardworking
clarinettist Victoria Soames Samek deserves all possible praise.
by Michael Cookson