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Richard ARNELL (b. 1917)
Piano Concerto op. 44 (1946) [32:31]
Symphony No. 2 Rufus op. 33 (1955-57) [33:28]
David Owen Norris (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 19-20 September 2006. DDD
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7184 [66:29]

Richard ARNELL (b. 1917)

Symphony No. 4 op. 52 (1948) [26:36]
Symphony No. 5 op. 77 (1955-57) [36:48]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 19-20 May 2007. DDD
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7194 [63:49]

Arnell may be a British composer but he has had little truck with pastoralism. His Piano Concerto was written towards the end of his New York wartime exile. It was premiered by Vera Brodsky with the CBS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arnell's chief supporter of the time Bernard Herrmann. It's a work in three movements with a dark and even ruthless mien in the outer movements, sometimes lightened by a very mildly astringent romanticism. The style is akin to early Rawsthorne with the edges softened and made yet more eloquent by Kabalevsky. His massive Third Symphony bore the Shostakovich impress and that can be heard here as well. The Arnell concerto would go rather well with Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto or Kabalevsky 2 and 3. At times when Arnell reaches for romance as he does at 9:01 in the first movement, and in the Andante, he can sound like Malcolm Arnold at his most dreamy and tranced. The concerto has not been widely played despite spells when it was championed by Moura Lympany and by the Canadian pianist Ross Pratt. Interest just fizzled out in the 1950s. It is good to welcome such a fine work back into availability.

The Second Symphony was also unlucky. Having been written under the pseudonym ‘Rufus’ for a competition it had to wait until September 1988 for its first performance - Edward Downes and the BBCPO. It was written before the symphony we now know as No. 1 and was dedicated, with permission, to Aldous Huxley. Its style reflects the turbulence of the times and of an America just entering the war after Pearl Harbour. There's a determined Allegro quasi presto in a thorny lyrical style close to late 1940s Alwyn. The orchestration is transparently structured and everything strikes with the utmost clarity - no doubt in part due to the evident artistry of the RSNO and Martin Yates. This is music in emotional turmoil with strong rhythmic impetus and brass emphasis. The second movement is an allegretto - a sort of night patrol in music that is uncertain, fragmented, haunted and elegiac. Nonetheless it rises in impressive brass-called romantic wreckage at 7:30. A typically yearning Alwyn-style theme sings out the movement but the music it resembles Alwyn was not to write until 1949. The finale has the gritty determination of Copland's Third Symphony without its brutal over-emphasis but again there are other familiarities here especially in the concert music of Alan Rawsthorne.

Two eloquent and exciting works with tragic grandeur in their sights both written in exile. Finely documented by Lewis Foreman, full-throatedly performed and recorded to match.


Arnell's Fourth Symphony started life during his New York wartime exile but was finished in London in 1948. While shorter than the monumental Shostakovich-indebted Third it has the gritty determination of that composer though the style is Arnell's alone. The work is dedicated to the conductor Leon Barzin who was one of Arnell's supporters in the USA. In fact Barzin gave the premiere with the NYPO in 1949. Once again it is clear that Arnell sees the symphony as a vehicle for the expression of great emotions and traumas. There is some pawky humour, often from the bassoon (as in the Second Symphony), but the passion of this work is in its laying bare of tragedy and heroism. Not perhaps as brassy as Boris Tchaikovsky's First, it certainly tracks territory similar to the Alwyn Fourth Symphony. Also in the mix there’s a dash of 1940s Rawsthorne and symphonic Copland and some of the bleakness in climax or in desolating quiet music of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. The brief and brass-clamant Allegro vivace finale touches on the obstreperously triumphant manner of Copland, William Schuamn, Roy Harris, Alwyn and Shostakovich. When we get to hear the symphonies of John Veale I suspect we will hear similar influences.

The Fifth Symphony - there are six in total of which Dutton have so far issued four - is not without tension. This time the accent is on a haunting and regal celebratory mood. As Lewis Foreman points out, the Fifth is perhaps Arnell's most approachable and potentially popular symphony. It was completed in 1957 and the formal premiere with corrections was given by the composer conducting the RPO in London on 22 March 1966. I came to know it through the BBC broadcast in 1977 by the BBCNSO conducted by John Carewe. It is dedicated to the composer's father whose predilection for the music-hall song Dear Old Pals, Jolly Old Pals is honoured by a quote in the middle and final movements. The music differs in heat and temperament from the Second, Third and Fourth symphonies. This does not mean that there are not some witheringly Shostakovich-like passages in the first movement because there are. The mood overall though can be likened to the imperial splendour of Glazunov's Eighth Symphony or Bax's Seventh as against the comparative extremes of emotion in Glazunov 4 or 5 or Bax 6. After a sober prelude the middle movement develops some vital and lively music at 3.09 typical of the grandiloquent moments in Roy Harris 7, Schuman 3 and Randall Thompson 2. This is music implacably alive with the life force. Waltonian birdsong joyously chirps preparing the ground for some romping and rampant brass but the movement ends in Copland-like peace. The third and final movement is an Andante e serioso. This has some wondrously lambent and beatific writing for the woodwind and a pervasive sense of cresting sanguine uplift. The atmosphere is fuelled and further enhanced by the singable melody at 3:12, warmly and flowingly projected at 4:00 and 5:16 and rising to frank and unclouded majesty at 8:45. It was at this point that a perhaps more pertinent parallel in British music came into focus: Malcolm Arnold's Fifth Symphony lying three or so years in the future when Arnell finished this symphony.

Good liner notes by Lewis Foreman - that doyen and begetter of the British musical renaissance since the early 1970s. The recording quality is excellent with especially good stereo spread rather than separation - that tangible sense of a wide-span soundstage.

Two fine symphonies embracing the extremes of emotion and one devastatingly likeable and radiantly strong.

Rob Barnett

see also Profile of Richard Arnell

Richard Arnell at 88


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