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Director Paul Harris holding proudly Malcolm’s trumpet on stage at the 2019 Malcolm Arnold Festival. Copyright Adrian Harris.


October 2019
The 14th Malcolm Arnold Festival, Northampton
Part of Richard Bratby’s splendid account of this year’s Festival, published in ‘The Spectator’:

 “… As this year’s edition of the Malcolm Arnold Festival showed, he had a glorious creative gift … his music is just so life-affirming!  Arnold writes melodies that sound like you’ve been humming them since childhood (just mentioning his score for the 1961 film ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ is enough to guarantee that its main theme will be lodged in the ear all week). More than that, he has style: a streamlined, bracing New Elizabethan optimism. Fanfares rocket upwards in fourths, like sonic Skylons. Banks of dissonant brass paint black John Piper cloudscapes, and violins soar clear into cool blue skies. Even at the bleakest moments (and Arnold’s nine symphonies are what we might have heard if Shostakovich had chronicled post-Suez Britain), there’s a readiness to make mischief. A dignified melody suddenly gives a little skip, and you see Sir Malcolm placing one finger slyly by his nose.

… All musicians, amateur or pro, love music that makes them sound good, and Arnold makes them gleam. The (Festival) gala concert this year came from the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth, and I’ve rarely heard them sound quite so on-point. Arnold’s Second Symphony dates from the year of the coronation. It opens with a melody that feels like sunlight spreading across a landscape, but what came out most strikingly at the Derngate was the purity of Arnold’s writing: the concentrated power of the brass, the eloquence with which the woodwinds knot and untangle the symphonic thread. Playing some 20th-century scores can feel like wading through sludge. Arnold never miscalculates a sonority, and each splash of harp or muted horn chimed out as vividly as the trumpets that crowned the skyscraping final peroration.

The previous night, at St Matthew’s Church, the amateur Northampton Symphony Orchestra had played one of Arnold’s most familiar works, the Ivesian ‘Peterloo’ overture. The qualification ‘amateur’ wouldn’t have bothered Arnold, and it was irrelevant here: the NSO played with a polish and a focus that’s more common than critics tend to imagine among the UK’s non-professional ensembles. Later, John Gibbons conducted ‘Stolen Face’, one of the so-called ‘Denham Concertos’ beloved of the postwar British film industry. Arnold begins as ersatz-Rachmaninov before sliding, characteristically, into a suave lopsided waltz,
elegantly handled by the pianist Rhythmie Wong.

And then came the ‘Variations on a Theme of Ruth Gipps’ of 1977: a tribute to an old friend from a man facing absolute darkness. Even here the clarity, the craftmanship, even the humour, glint beneath an overcast surface. The NSO’s oboes played their long, yearning melodies as if in a single breath. To paraphrase Hans Sachs, to come through spring, summer, autumn and winter, through all life’s suffering and sorrow, and still sing a beautiful song — that is what we call a Master. Malcolm Arnold said only that he wanted to be remembered as ‘an honest composer’. I don’t think he was capable of being anything else.”

Richard Bratby, The Spectator, 19th October 2019


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