Malcolm Arnold


Andrew McGregor, presenter of BBC Radio 3 CD Review, looks at the comprehensive survey of Arnold’s orchestral works on Decca, originally intended for release as an 85th birthday tribute.

The Malcolm Arnold Edition – Decca 476 5337 (5 discs)/ 4765343 (4 discs)/  476 5348  (4 discs)
(“… a fitting tribute to his life and work” – Andrew McGregor, BBC Music Magazine December 2006)

Poignant timing: an Arnold Edition intended to celebrate the composer’s 85th birthday. But he didn’t quite make it to the party. So it becomes a memorial, and the Eleven Symphonies(Decca 476 5337, 5 CDs) become a musical autobiography. The First (1949) came before the English Dances and it’s full of startling emotional extremes, early indications of Arnold’s bipolarity and alcoholism. The Second has a sunnier disposition, spiced with humour, there’s the deeply personal Third, the vivid social commentary of the Fourth, the requiem for friends that’s the Fifth, the contrasting brevity of the unsettling Sixth, through to the violent despair of the Seventh, written in Dublin while Arnold’s demons were at their most destructive. Optimism and crushing hopelessness collide in the Eight (1978), and then there’s silence … until the Ninth Symphony (1986) a stark, often skeletally scored post-Mahlerian vision, powerfully expressive in a performance from Vernon Handley and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The Symphony for Brass Instruments is Arnold, and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, at their very finest, and the Symphony for Strings makes 11, in case you were wondering …

Volume 2 offers 17 concertos (Decca 476 5343, 4 CDs) just over half of Arnold’s output, generous gifts for artists he admired and counted as friends. Most are from the Conifer series with Mark Stephenson: highlights are Michael Collins in the Clarinet Concertos, Richard Watkins in the Horn Concertos and (from Sony) Michala Petri in the Recorder Concertos Arnold wrote for her. There are two Decca recordings as well: the Guitar Concerto with Eduardo Fernandez, and the Harmonica Concerto with Tommy Reilly, neither eclipsing the dedicatees, but all inspired by Arnold’s melodic flair and brilliant wit.

Humour laces the next box: Orchestra, Brass and Piano Music (Decca 476 5348, 4 CDs). There’s Arnold’s first recording from 1947, Beckus the Dandipratt conducted by Van Beinum, with the composer leading the LPO’s trumpet section. There’s Tam O’Shanter, plus the insanely funny contributions to the Hoffnung Music Festivals with hoovers and floor polishers and the extension for Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals. The English Dances appear twice, in their orchestral and brass versions – and the Scottish Dances and the Cornish Dances join the Little Suites on the brass disc. On the last CD, Benjamin Frith plays Arnold’s complete solo piano music, mostly attractive miniatures, but with the tautly-argued Sonata and the more convoluted Variations on a Ukrainian Folksong taking pride of place. Arnold’s prodigious gifts for comedy and melody have led many misunderstandings over the 50 years, but listen to the Symphonies at least, and in this Arnold Edition you’ll find the essence of the man.

Andrew McGregor – BBC Music Magazine – December 2006

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