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Sir Malcom ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Overture: Beckus the Dandipratt, Op.5 (1944) [8:05]
Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, Op.116 (1975, perf.1977) [23:25]
Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands), Op.104 (1969) [13:20]
Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings, Op.32 (1951) [21:46]
Phillip Dyson (piano); Kevin Sargent (piano, concertos);
Ulster Orchestra/Esa Heikkilä
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, N. Ireland, 8 January (Fantasy), 15 March 2007. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English and German
NAXOS 8.570531 [66:36]

Seven cities warred for Homer being dead;
Who living had no roofe to shrowd his head.
(Thomas Heywood: Hierarchie of the Blessed Angells)
It sometimes seems, in the arts, as if nothing succeeds like being dead.  A year on from Arnold’s death and the record companies cover his music as never before.  I’m sure that it’s unfair of me to attribute dark motives to Naxos: after all, the complete Arnold symphonies reissue which I have just nominated as one of my Recordings of the Year (8.505221) was already in the catalogue as single CDs and as a set, a series begun when he was neglected by the establishment, and their wonderful CD of his wind chamber Music (8.570294) could easily have joined my choices for the year.  That wind chamber recording had already been three months in the can when Arnold died in September, 2006.
This new CD joins the growing pile of recommended Naxos recordings of Arnold.
Beckus the Dandipratt is described as a Comedy Overture.  Arnold himself recorded it in 1955 with the RPO and again in 1991 with the LPO: in 1955 he polished it off in 7:23, but by 1991 it took an incredible 10:45.  That earlier version recently appeared in a 2-CD set from EMI, entitled Arnold conducts Arnold (3821462) hailed as Bargain of the Month by John Quinn and Rob Barnett.  On the present CD the work takes 8:05, much closer to the earlier timing and, surely, more in the spirit of the piece than Arnold’s 1991 version.  It gets the new CD off to an excellent start, very well played and recorded.
Arnold conducts Arnold also contains the Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands), played by its dedicatees, the husband-and-wife team of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith.  Obviously, their performance, with Arnold himself at the rostrum, is definitive and, though a 1970 ADD recording, still sounds very well.  Their EMI recording is timed at 14:21; the new Naxos version takes 13:20.  When given its first performance, at the Proms, the Concerto was a show-stopper.  The question arises whether the Naxos performers are trying too hard, by shaving a minute off the EMI timing, to repeat the experience.
First impressions are certainly encouraging, with the Technicolor opening, redolent of the best film music, Arnold’s own or Walton’s, very well presented and excellently captured by the wide-ranging recording.  Perhaps it fails by a small margin to meet the description given by Paul Harris in his excellent notes: “music of a very dark, almost tragic character”.  The central, lyrical section is as seductive as one could wish and the slow movement’s “meltingly romantic melody” also comes over well.  In both these movements the performance faithfully matches the respective directions, Allegro moderato and Andante con moto.  The finale (allegro) opens jauntily, a glorious rumba with echoes of syncopated jazz.  The notes see the whole concerto, and this movement in particular, as Arnold’s stand against the BBC’s avant-garde philosophy.  Though it brought the house down on its first outing, at the Proms, it was his last major commission from the BBC and he still fails to receive his fair share of broadcast performances.  The Naxos version didn’t quite bring my house down – far from going overboard with their fastish tempi, I found it just a trifle understated – but it came close enough for me to see what had excited the prommers.
The Fantasy on a Theme of John Field is a much darker work from the mid-seventies, around the time of the Seventh Symphony, a powerful work which I admit to finding hard to come to terms with.  In my review of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies I chickened out and referred readers to earlier Musicweb reviews.  I repeat my warning that the works of this troubled period of his life are not the place to begin one’s exploration of Arnold.  Readers may wish to consult Paul Serotsky’s analysis of this work here on Musicweb.
Arnold was now living in Dublin, the native city of John Field, whose Nocturnes predate those of Chopin.  Field, too, had had his share of problems and suffered public neglect. Arnold’s sympathy (in the literal sense of fellow-suffering) comes through in this work.  The performance is certainly suitably bleak and uncompromising where appropriate, the theme from Field disintegrating at the opening without ever being fully developed; whenever it tries to reassert itself on the piano it is banished by a powerful section of the orchestra, the percussion or the brass, or by the full orchestra.  Themes related to other cities where Field had lived receive the same treatment – at best wistful, at worst despairing.  At times Arnold almost seems to be contemplating becoming an atonal composer himself, but melodious strains always break through.
There are glimmers of hope in this work, too: the recollection of his mother’s love of Field’s Nocturnes which had inspired him to play them as a boy and the artistic relationship with John Lill, who first performed the work in 1977.  A work written without commission and without certainty of being performed was performed by a rising star at the Festival Hall and the ending reflects that new hope.  This is not a work which receives many outings, so I have no ‘reference recordings’ with which to compare it: all the more credit to Naxos for giving it to us.  They have already given us near-definitive performances of Field’s own Nocturnes (Benjamin Frith on 8.550761 and 8.550762, reviewed on Musicweb by Colin Clarke).  Credit, too, for the performance, which captures the multi-faceted aspect of this music very well.  The bleaker moments are not shirked but the performers make the ending sound almost as positive as any of the great Romantic warhorse concertos.  I originally wrote ‘Grieg or Tchaikovsky’ till I read PS’s note and didn’t want to seem to be cribbing.  I read the note after I had made my notes on the performance and found my description of the performance to match PS’s description so closely that I imagine he would approve of this version.
The Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings is another work which is not often performed.  This work dates from 1951, a frenetic period in Arnold’s professional life, but not a happy time for him personally: he had just spent three and a half months undergoing the kind of unpleasant treatments then inflicted on the depressed in mental hospitals.  Once again, full marks to Naxos for granting us access to this music: it is an attractive work, surprisingly approachable when one considers Arnold’s mental instability, and it again receives a sympathetic performance and recording.  I can’t imagine wanting to hear it as often as his best symphonies or the Three-hand Concerto and it seems to be over-egging the pudding to suggest, as the back-cover does, that this is one of Arnold’s finest works, but it certainly deserves to be performed much more often than it is.  It reminds us not to try to read too much of the composer’s personality in his or her music: in the end, music is the purest of the arts in that it never definitively ‘means’ anything.
The other works in Naxos’s British Piano Concerto series have been made with established artists such as Peter Donohoe and David Lloyd-Jones, so it was something of a surprise to see three new names – new to me, and, I think, to Naxos – accompanying that of the Ulster Orchestra on this CD.  Phillip Dyson has made the Field Fantasia something of a concert speciality, praised by Arnold himself, no less, so it is no surprise that he offers such a fine performance.  Kevin Sargent is better known as a film and television composer but he makes such an excellent partner for Dyson in the two-piano works that I really couldn’t tell you who plays which part.
More surprising is the affinity which the Finnish conductor, Esa Heikkilä, shows for Arnold’s music.  Perhaps his love of Sibelius was his key to Arnold’s door, but he certainly conducts this music as if to the manner born.  I shouldn’t be too surprised: witness Pierre Monteux’s affinity for Elgar.
I have already indicated that the recording is good: wide-ranging but never an end in itself to impress the listener.  The notes are all as informative as those for the Three-hand Concerto.
Arnold’s own recordings remain unique, especially that of the Three-hand Concerto with its dedicatees, but I cannot imagine anyone, even those who have the EMI set, feeling short-changed by spending a fiver (UK) on this new recording.  What a long way Naxos have come since their CDs of mainstream repertoire were hidden away in Woolworths and the intelligentsia pretended to despise them.  One music teacher of my acquaintance even thought that they had been recorded by the Czechoslovak Railway Orchestra.   My first Naxos CD of Haydn’s Op.76 quartets was a revelation (the Kodály Quartet on 8.550129) but I never imagined that I would be reviewing an Arnold recording featuring two little-known works in such fine performances and recording.
The cover, as usual, features appropriate art-work.  Naxos covers actually look classier than those of many full-price CDs.
Brian Wilson

see also review by Bob Briggs


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