RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
The Magic of Malcolm Arnold - Volume 1
Symphony for Brass, Op. 123 [24.17]
Quintet for Brass No.1, Op. 73 [13.27]
Quintet for Brass, Op. 132 [7.49]
Fantasy for Tuba, Op.102 [4.34]
Fantasy for Trombone, Op.101 [3.23]
Fantasy for Horn, Op.88 [4.42]
Fantasy for Trumpet, Op.100 [4.16]
Fantasy for Brass Band, Op.114a [9.26]
Little Suite for Brass Band No.1, Op. 80 [6.53]
Little Suite for Brass Band No.2, Op. 93 [5.59]
Little Suite for Brass Band No.3, Op. 131 [4.48]
The Padstow Lifeboat, Op.94 [4.00]
The Wallace Collection (Stuart Beard (tuba), Benedict Vernon (trombone), Michael Gibbs (horn), Illiam Quane (trumpet))
National Youth Brass Band of Scotland/Richard Evans (Little Suite 1, Padstow Lifeboat), Russell Gray (Fantasy for Brass Band, Little Suites 2 & 3), Bede Williams (Symphony for Brass),
THE WALLACE COLLECTION TWC-FR2016-001 [62.28 + 31.06]
It seems sometimes, as if a minority of composers can be too prolific for their own good. In the eighteenth century, great composers could be prolific, turning out the Messiah in a fortnight, writing symphonies in bits by return of post or creating a weekly masterpiece for a Sunday service. Yet, for some reason, for a twentieth century composer to produce so apparently easily, is to suggest some shallowness. Masterpieces need to be hard-won, chipped out piece by painful piece. For a composer to demonstrate facility is to seem merely facile. Martinů and Prokofiev seem both to have suffered a little in retrospect from the sheer quantity of their output. Even more so seems the case with Malcolm Arnold. Especially in the 1950s and 1960s it seemed as if he was just the composer, who could churn out film scores to order (in what ways is that worse or more negligible than churning out concertos, motets or cantatas to order?). Malcolm himself claimed to have composed more music in one three-year period than Beethoven managed in an entire career.
One of the great things about the CD era has been the chance to revisit neglected masterpieces. It is a sadness that this re-exploration has not always, or even often, been replicated in the concert-hall, where too much programming still lacks adventure. A release such as the present one from the Wallace Collection is doubly welcome in redressing the balance.
Malcolm Arnold’s own instrument was the trumpet, and throughout his career, he wrote specifically for brass. There is a danger of associating music for brass with perpetual oompah bands, but anyone who follows the brass band world will be aware that, especially in Britain, major composers have written significant pieces for brass band. George Lloyd, for example, wrote his Tenth Symphony specifically for brass band. Malcolm Arnold’s works for brass include a gamut of emotions. If The Padstow Lifeboat were all one knew of Arnold’s work in the genre, then so much would be missing. Yet The Padstow Lifeboat is justly popular, moving beyond the merely jolly. In a good performance, such as it receives here from the National Youth Brass Band of Scotland – which performs all the works on the second disc – one is aware not just of the hilarity and zest, but of the melancholy and dangers of the sea. In its four-minute length there is a miniature symphony. That off-key siren touches such depths.
Probably the most significant work in the collection is the Symphony for Brass, Op.123, written for ten players. It is genuinely symphonic in scope and depth of feeling. In complexity, it can perhaps be compared with the Seventh Symphony. It is a deeply serious piece, written in one of the darker periods of Arnold’s troubled life. The opening phrases could only be Arnold, yet the sense of sadness is gripping from the outset. The scoring is unusual – piccolo trumpet, three trumpets, four trombones, horn and tuba – but the colours are telling. There are moments close to despair, especially in the opening Allegro, yet the quirky exuberance of Arnold’s mental world also peeks through the melancholy. The glee in the final Allegro con brio is more than hard-won. This is not simply great music but a great human expression.
If nothing else on the collection is quite so lofty, there is nothing trivial here. The fantasias for individual brass instruments, here played by young winners of the 2016 Malcolm Arnold Fantasy Competition, are some of Arnold’s most interesting pieces for solo instruments. His keen ear for timbre and character, as well as his extraordinary ability to capture so many moods in a brief compass, are evident here. So, too, is his humour, perhaps most obviously in the piece for trumpet. The playing is outstanding.
The two quintets, each for two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba, come from different times in Arnold’s career. The first quintet is from 1961, with much virtuosity and excitement. The second is from 1987, a year after the spare and fraught Ninth Symphony, when Arnold’s technique had been pared to the bone. The same bleakness and sparseness are evident, but there is beauty also. The pieces on the second disc are simpler, but even here, moods alternate, with some characteristically exciting passages.
It would be wonderful if this Volume 1 heralds a complete collection of Arnold’s brass music. I shall treasure this, and look forward to Volume 2 with eager anticipation.
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