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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Philharmonic Concerto, Op. 120 (1976) [14:49]
Fantasy on a theme of John Field, Op. 116 (1975) [22:09]
Symphony No. 7, Op. 113 (1973) [31:13]
John FIELD (1782-1837)
Nocturne No. 7 in C major ‘Reverie’ (1821) [5:02]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. 2-3 June 2014, Henry Wood Hall, RSNO Centre, Glasgow. Reviewed in SACD stereo

It’s a scandal that Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music still doesn’t get the exposure it deserves, either on record or in the concert hall. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until his centenary in 2021 before that changes; or until hell freezes over, whichever comes first. In the meantime devotees do have some fine recordings to choose from; there are the composer’s own, on Warner, Lyrita and Everest, Rumon Gamba’s on Chandos (he completed Richard Hickox’s cycle), Andrew Penny’s on Naxos and Vernon ‘Tod’ Handley’s on Decca/Conifer. Now we have this new Dutton SACD from Martin Yates and the RSNO, with Peter Donohoe as the soloist in the Fantasy and the nocturne on which it is based.

I came to the symphonies – there are 11 if you include the Symphony for Brass Instruments and the early Symphony for Strings – via Handley’s idiomatic and authoritative set. Indeed, his Arnold recordings are the ones I return to most often, although Gamba – who I prefer to stable-mate Hickox in this repertoire – finds plenty of pith here too. I also admire Penny’s traversal with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland; he’s always refreshing and fully engaged. So, while we may not have dozens of performances to choose from the ones we do have are all pretty good.

Although Dutton place the symphony after the fillers I’ve chosen to deal with it first. Written in 1973 and dedicated to the composer's three children, the Seventh Symphony presents a typically Arnoldian mix of pounding rhythms and quiet, often quirky asides. Handley and the Royal Philharmonic bring out these extremes with great skill and assurance, and the 1991 recording – though not as weighty as Gamba’s a decade later – is very acceptable. Meanwhile Naxos have furnished Penny with clear, detailed sonics that match his lighter but no less telling touch. Yates has the best sound of all, whether one listens to the Super Audio layer or the Red Book one.

Starting with the Allegro energico (Katherine) one gets a pretty good idea of how all these performances will go. Gamba is impassive, whereas Handley and Penny are rather more transparent; that means those flashes of colour and twists of detail are more easily discerned. Yates is very brisk in the rat-a-tat sections of this movement, and he draws glorious sounds from his players in quieter sections; that said, Penny’s Katherine is more completely drawn. Yates clocks in at 12:02, as opposed to 13:19 (Gamba), 16:01 (Handley) and 16:47 (Penny). I don’t usually set much store by timings - they're easily misconstrued - but in this case they might explain why Yates misses so much in this movement.

Yates’s Andante (Robert) is also quite swift, and again I sense we’re only hearing isolated parts of Arnold’s carefully crafted narrative. Handley’s response is far more probing and comprehensive, and the sustained loveliness of the RPO is a welcome bonus. Even that orchestra’s darkened brass and percussive interludes have the kind of frisson you simply won’t find in the Yates recording. Indeed, it’s at times like this that one's reminded just how unassailably right Handley sounds in this music. Gamba’s orchestra, the wonderfully adaptable BBC Philharmonic, are also alive to the score's every tic and tug; and while Penny builds to an inexorable climax Gamba delivers a truly seismic one.

Yates is at his trenchant best in the finale (Edward), yet there are fractional pauses, as if he’s unsure of how best to proceed, and that makes for somewhat fitful progress. He springs Arnold’s insouciant rhythms nicely though, and those lovely harp figures are superbly rendered. I’m happy to point out all these felicities, I just wish I could be as complimentary about the performance as a whole. Even at the very end, where Gamba in particular really lets rip – what a fabulous bass drum – Yates is just too corseted for my tastes. As a result his denouement offers none of the cathartic release that Gamba, Handley and Penny achieve at this point.

The three fillers are most attractive, though. Yates gives us a big, sassy performance of the Philharmonic Concerto, commissioned by Commercial Union and dedicated to his old band, the LPO. Full of metropolitan rush and restless rhythms this is a piece that really needs to be played for all it’s worth. That’s exactly how it’s done here; the Intrada is exhilarating, Aria is moodily eloquent and the Chaconne has all the feistiness that I’d hoped to hear in the symphony. The RSNO are all fired up, the brass and percussion especially, and Yates paces the work very well indeed. As for the recording it’s simply spectacular.

My go-to version of the Fantasy on a theme of John Field has always been the John Lill/Tod Handley one. That said, Yates’s Peter Donohoe is a most sensitive and stylish soloist. Also, there’s a bright modernity, a sophisticated edge, to this performance that I don’t always hear with Lill and Handley. Still, the latter version makes the most of Arnold’s more lyrical passages. Such is the magic of Donohoe and Yates that my old loyalties were sorely tested; the Super Audio recording is the icing on this oh-so-moreish confection. Don’t bin Lill and Handley though, for they are still very insightful and entertaining, not least in those outrageously jazzy interludes; here Lill is cheek and perkiness personified.

John Field’s Nocturne No. 7, which beats at the heart of the Fantasy, makes for an unusual but utterly appropriate appendix. Donohoe, particularly memorable in extrovert Busoni and Prokofiev, gives a pellucid, beautifully scaled reading of this little gem. The piano is nicely balanced and the detailed recording is outstanding. The fillers are mandatory listening for audiophiles and Arnoldians alike; indeed, the album is worth acquiring for those alone.

Absolutely cracking fillers; there are better versions of the symphony, though.

Dan Morgan