Bright Jewels - Music from the 1940s and 1950s
Maestro Sound & Vision: MSV0214CD
(Concert Piece for Percussion & Piano/Beauty Haunts the Woods/John Clare Cantata/ English Dances set 2 arr. Reizenstein piano duet/Divertimento for Wind Trio/ The Peacock in the Zoo/ Piano Pieces Vol. 2/ Purple Dust/ Ragtime/ Scherzetto/ 2 Sketches for Oboe & Piano/ Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano/ Sonatina for Recorder and Piano/ Solitaire arr. recorder and piano/ Suite Bourgeoise)
Those who think of Sir Malcolm Arnold as the composer of highly colourful orchestral music or as one of the greatest of film music composers will be very pleasantly surprised by what is to be found on these two discs. Arnold embraced every musical genre from songs to choral music, operas and ballets, piano miniatures, and a whole range of sonatas and sonatinas as well as a considerable body of chamber music.Many of these appear here on disc for the first time.
The earliest work in this set is his evocative and haunting song, Beauty Haunts the Woods (1938), a setting of some words by his elder sister Ruth, who was a great inspiration to the young Arnold. Poet, artist, feminist and lover of jazz, the daring Ruth Arnold was way ahead of her time and the teenage composer adored her. More songs came in 1953, when Arnold was at the height of his film career. He was approached to write some incidental music for Sean O’Casey’s play Purple Dust andserved up a collection of riotous songs. Ten years later, as a special treat, he set a poem written by his young daughter Katherine, The Peacock in the Zoo. A sunny and slightly jazzy song it must have been a pleasant distraction from the fourteen episodes of a TV series, Espionage, with which he was grappling at the time.
Arnold is not well known for his choral music yet the John Clare Cantata is a little gem, highly engaging and often beautiful with hints of Benjamin Britten. It was written in 1955 just before his enormous success at the Proms with the tone poem Tam O’Shanter. Another great success was his two sets of English Dances (1950/51), perhaps more responsible than any other of his compositions for establishing his name before the general public. We hear the second set here in the more unusual version for piano duet, arranged by the composer Franz Reizenstein. Though in the tradition of ‘English’ works by the likes of Holst and Vaughan Williams, Arnold did not draw on actual folk music – the tunes are all his own. 1951 was also the year of perhaps his most performed instrumental work, the Sonatina for Clarinet. Hugely extrovert and tuneful it was given its first performance by Colin Davis in his pre-conducting days. Jack Thurston, though, was the real inspiration behind it. Arnold’s long-time friend, he was also the recipient of the marvellous First Clarinet Concerto. When asked about the gorgeous slow movement, Arnold once explained enigmatically, “I didn’t want it to sound like Bartok.”
Arnold would always choose his friends to play for him in his film sessions and he would always make sure that there was a lot for them to do. In 1954 he wrote the music to a British comedy, You Know what Sailors are. Thurston was again central to Arnold’s thinking as there is a wonderful (and extended) scene which features one of his most tongue-in-cheek creations - Scherzetto for clarinet and piano. Whether or not the film will live on, this little gem is surely destined to become a jewel in the clarinettist’s repertoire of encore pieces!
The previous year saw the composition of the Sonatina for Recorder, the last of his four wind sonatinas which hints at earlier times with its gentle and melodious Chaconne and concluding Rondo. The recorder is also soloist in Solitaire, a piece that has quite a history. It began life as a piano solo for a TV commercial for a particular brand of cigarettes; in the event it was not used. Arnold then arranged it to be whistled by his friend John Amis for a radio programme. Here the recorder takes on the John Amis role. The earlier piano version (Theme for Players) is also included.
Arnold began writing for piano as early as 1937, when the sixteen-year-old presented his mother with short pieces as birthday and Christmas presents. The earliest piano piece here is The Dream City, a delightful miniature composed on December 24th 1938, making its purpose quite clear. Flamenco owes its origins to the silver screen - the 1952 film It Started in Paradise, an unusually plush, Lana Turner-esque production that was very popular in its day. Constance’s Sad Dance is one of a series of sketches Arnold wrote for a proposed ballet version of The Three Musketeers. Though illness and financial problems saw to it that the ballet was never really begun, this lovely piece eventually found its way into the slow movement of the Flute Sonata, written a few years later for James Galway.
So much of Arnold’s music was written for friends. The Wind Divertimento of 1952 was for Richard Adeney, Sidney Sutcliffe and Stephen Waters. The famous critic, Felix Aprahamian, was openly chuckling out loud at each new musical joke at an early performance. The six movements are expertly written and exploit each instrument brilliantly. James Blades (another close friend and the man who plays the actual gong at the beginning of those Rank Organisation films) was the recipient of another unashamedly witty work – the Concert Piece for Percussion and Piano, possibly the first piece of its kind.
Also for piano (two pianos this time) is the Ragtime of 1942. Arnold was a pacifist and his hatred of war is clearly an influence. So too are his love of jazz and his enormous regard for his teacher Constant Lambert. Another wartime work is the charming and insouciant Suite Bourgeoise - an impudent five-movement work encompassing a tango, a hard rock number, the most amorous of ballads that would happily accompany any 1940s romance and a jazz-waltz. It is truly a musical treasure. Written at the same time were the Two Sketches for Oboe and Piano. The oboist Ivor Slaney (who later became a bandleader) was probably the dedicatee.
Here then is a side of Malcolm Arnold perhaps new to some. This is music which displays a certain sophistication whether serious, charming or witty. You’ll feel you’re much better acquainted with the man through knowing these delightful works.
©Paul Harris 2006
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