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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Ballet Music
Homage to the Queen - suite op. 42 (1953) [19:43]
Rinaldo and Armida - dance-drama in one act op. 49 (1954) [20:57]
Sweeney Todd - concert suite op. 68a (1959) (prepared 1984, David Ellis with composer) [20:16]
Electra - ballet in one act op. 79 (1963) [14:49]
BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 9-10, December 2008
CHANDOS CHAN 10550 [76:14]

Experience Classicsonline

 

 
This disc includes the bulk of Arnold’s ballet music. The only works not included here are Solitaire (1956) and The Three Musketeers, which was premièred in Bradford on the very evening that his death was announced. It will be noted that Chandos present these four works in chronological order, which seems a very sensible arrangement. All four works are characterised by a strong dramatic sense and vividly colourful orchestration together with fine melodic invention; in short, all the qualities that made Arnold such an effective composer of film music.
 
Homage to the Queen, which is heard here in the six-movement suite extracted by Arnold himself, was composed to a commission by the Royal Opera House as part of the celebrations to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In his excellent note, Mervyn Cooke describes the backstage rivalry in which Arnold was unwittingly caught up. The music was choreographed by Frederick Ashton and was well received at first, it seems. However, the ballet fell into complete neglect within a year, until it was revived with new choreography in 2006 to mark the Queen’s eightieth birthday.
 
The music is very impressive. The first and last sections have unmistakable Waltonian overtones – and are none the worse for that. On the other hand, the exhilarating second section, ‘Dance of the Insects’, the brief ‘Fire Dance’, and the lovely, lyrical Pas de deux, which forms the fifth movement are quintessential Arnold. It’s all ripe stuff and it’s played with a marvellous mix of finesse and relish by Gamba and his excellent BBC orchestra
 
Ashton was also the choreographer of Rinaldo and Armida, which was commissioned by the Royal Opera House in the immediate wake of Homage to the Queen. The plot is based on an episode in a poem by the sixteenth century poet, Tasso. The enchantress Armida lures lovers to their doom but meets her own end when she falls for the mortal, Rinaldo. The ballet took the form of an extended pas de deux and it contains some strong and descriptive music, orchestrated with consummate skill. The performance here is full of conviction and Gamba realises the dramatic possibilities of the score very well indeed.
 
Sweeney Todd is described on the Malcolm Arnold website as a ballet but Mervyn Cooke refers to it as a “hybrid theatrical entertainment”, composed for the Royal Ballet’s touring company and first staged by them at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has its macabre side but is also a richly slapstick invention at times and both sides come out in Arnold’s entertaining score. This is given here in a seven-movement suite arranged by David Ellis, working with the composer.
 
There’s a strong element of the Keystone Cops at times in this score and several passages recall the world of Beckus the Dandipratt. The dark side of the music is brought out most effectively but the sly, irreverent humour leaves the strongest impression. Unless you are allergic to Arnold’s musical sense of fun I defy you not to smile broadly at the cheeky melody of the second section (track 14); at the helter-skelter music a little later on (track 16); and at the trademark broad melody – complete with twittering birdsong at one point! – mingled with broad humour in the last section, (track 19). This score – and the superb performance on this disc – is a winner!
 
Finally we are given the One Act Ballet, Electra, here receiving its first recording. This was another Royal Opera House work, choreographed this time by Robert Helpmann, who based the action loosely on the tragedy by Sophocles. As befits its subject, this is the darkest music on the disc and it’s compellingly effective, very powerful and often extremely exciting. The music is quite grim in tone and pulls no punches. Arnold makes striking use of a battery of percussion, including bongos, tom-toms and timpani and the resulting rhythmic drive is hugely exciting. As the last section – of three – draws to a close (track 22 from 2:43) the frenetic, menacing drumming impels the music forward with immense, dark power. Here, the vivid and potent Chandos engineering, which is enormously impressive throughout the CD, is absolutely stunning in its immediacy.
 
Over the years Malcolm Arnold’s music has been well served on CD and I have many excellent discs of his music on my shelves. But I fancy this is one of the finest of all. The BBC Philharmonic plays superbly throughout and Rumon Gamba confirms his excellent credentials as an Arnold interpreter that I first encountered in his disc of Arnold overtures a few years ago. Throw into the mix recorded sound in the demonstration class and you have a disc that no admirer of Arnold’s music will want to be without.
 

John Quinn
 
 

And a further review from Rob Barnett:-
 
As marches were woven into Mahler's creative psyche so dance figured in that of Malcolm Arnold; not to say that Arnold did not have a weakness for marches as we know from Padstow to the Eighth Symphony.
 
In any event, sets of national dances for the four quarters of the British Isles take their place from the late 1940s and extend into Arnold’s final phases. Add to this the dance ballet Solitaire (drawing on the idiom of the English Dances) and the composite ballet The Three Musketeers.
 
For these reasons it should come as no surprise that ballet music also takes its place in his worklist. Early success bred commissions and these included the slightly Blissy Homage to the Queen. As we can see and hear from this disc that score was not an end of the connection. Ballets extended into the 1960s with a work based on a Greek tragic theme.
 
In the Homage score euphoric confidence rises from quiet fanfares touched with jauntiness. There’s also a modicum of the succulent brilliance of the English Dances. The fruity and dewy romance of those same Dances can be heard at the heart of the Prelude and Opening Scene. The Water movement is irresistible and beguiling music flickering with a sunny airborne disposition. Also notable is the steady, upbeat and pulsed grandeur of the Pas de Deux. This has an affinity with the sunset end of the Fifth Symphony. A slowly blooming warmth is pervasive.
 
There's a Blissy Checkmate aspect to the Finale which has the same grandeur and march quality. The trumpets and horns at 1.11 echo back and forward in triumph.
 
Electra's subject matter is bound to recall Barber's Medea. That bridging of the void between dance and the drama of the symphony is clear in Arnold’s Electra. Rinaldo and Armida takes one step back from the grand symphonic ballet style – a slightly frothier mix but for complete indulgence in the wildly absurd and giggling melodrama don’t miss the suite from Sweeney Todd. It was previously recorded by Vernon Handley for Conifer and latterly available on one of the three magnificent Decca Arnold boxes. Speaking of which the Rinaldo score has also been previously recorded on the now defunct ClassicO with Homage to the Queen (see review). [NOTE: ClassicO has gone out of business but copies of most of the CDs including the one mentioned are available in small numbers through MusicWeb- see here]
 
As usual with Chandos the sound is splendid and the documentation likewise.
 

Rob Barnett
 

 


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