Readers of a certain age will remember Everest Records,
which made a clutch of fine recordings vetween 1958 and 1960. The brainchild
of Harry D. Belock and Bert Whyte the US label was known for its superior
sonics and roster of artists, among them Leopold Stokowski, William
Steinberg, Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Malcolm Sargent. Their recording
of the other Sir Malcolm’s Four Scottish Dances
3 has had several incarnations – appropriately, Phoenix
was one of them – but now the Everest catalogue has been re-mastered
and reissued by Countdown Media. Rob
welcomed the first tranche of discs, which are also available
as high-res downloads from HDtracks and as aacs from iTunes.
It’s outrageous that Arnold’s music is still neglected in Britain, so we must be grateful for the advocacy of Vernon Handley (Conifer), Andrew Penny (Naxos) and Richard Hickox and Rumon Gamba (Chandos). All are splendid in this repertoire, although it’s Tod Handley who gets my vote more often than anyone else. He has a rare feel for this music, its wit and unnerving asides, and his cycle – recorded in the 1990s – is in excellent sound. However, the composer was no mean conductor himself, so this Everest reissue deserves our attention too.
Typically the Four Scottish Dances
couldn’t be further from the twee Brigadoon
style of national nonsense favoured by Hollywood; these are trenchant, rhythmically robust tunes that are unmistakably Arnoldian in their skirl and skitter. The LPO play this music with great verve and the clean, detailed sound of this re-master is most appealing. Only the brass at the close of the first dance sounds a tad strained; otherwise timbres are true and there’s a decent sense of space around the notes. The harp in the gorgeous third dance is especially well caught, as are the yearning upper strings. The wild fourth dance is as thrilling as it gets.
Arnold’s Third Symphony
is not the sunniest of works;
indeed, even the first movement displays the sudden shifts of mood that
we hear elsewhere in his oeuvre. Those Ealing comedy moments are very
well handled here – Hickox is polished but perhaps a little too
controlled at times – and the quality of Arnold’s writing
is as startling as ever. I’m very impressed by the width and depth
of the stereo image and the original Everest team’s ability to
pick out telling touches in the most natural and unobtrusive way. The
oom-pah brass writing is a special treat; also, Arnold’s sharp
nudges and sly winks have seldom seemed so louche.
Behind this distracting façade lurks something much darker, as
the middle movement demonstrates. The LPO strings are marvellous here
and the sour brass is deeply unsettling. Handley certainly captures
this strange, twilight sound world very well; Hickox is somewhat po-faced
by comparison. Arnold’s account of this movement is the bleakest
of them all. The mask is back on for the cantering finale, whose blend
of weight and sparkle has seldom sounded so engaging. Perhaps Handley
binds it all together better – he offers a more obvious narrative,
if you will – but Arnold makes the most of the symphony’s
subversive side. The original, very informative sleeve notes by Paul
Affelder round off a quality package.
A classic reborn; Arnoldians rejoice!
Review index: Arnold symphonies