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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59 (1957) [9:35]
Symphony No. 3, Op. 63 (1957) [34:51]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Arnold
rec. November 1958, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK
Reviewed as 24/96 download from HDtracks
Pdf liner-notes included

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 and Symphony No. 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 Barnett 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!
Dan Morgan

Review index: Arnold symphonies