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
Rumon Gamba’s on Chandos
(he completed Richard Hickox’s cycle), Andrew Penny’s on
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
– 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.
(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
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
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
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
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,