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CD Review

Malcolm Arnold

Naxos 8.572640

Orchestral Works

  • Cello Concerto, Op. 136 (1988/2000; ed. Ellis) *
  • Concertino for Flute & Strings, Op. 19a (1948/2000; orch. Ellis)
  • Fantasy for Recorder & String Quartet, Op. 140 (1990/2001; ed. Ellis)
  • Saxophone Concerto (1942/1994; arr. & orch. Ellis)
  • Symphony for Strings, Op. 13 (1946) *
Raphael Wallfisch, cello
Esther Ingham, flute
John Turner, recorder
Carl Raven, alto saxophone
Northern Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Ward
* Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth
Naxos 8.572640 73:17
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Arnold and almost-Arnold.

The matter of major composer vs. minor has always bothered me. I like what I like but see no need to demean other composers in order to validate my favorites. To further distinguish among my favorites seems to me to say which of my children I love most. Each one claims my affection for different reasons. I adore Bach, but also Handel and Vivaldi. Which is the best? It depends on what I'm looking for at the time. Musicologists and, alas, critics tend to use the standard of influence. That is, Bach is better than Vivaldi or Handel because he eventually influenced more composers than the other two did. Marvelous composers like Scarlatti, Bizet, and Holst stand to the side, out of notice. To me, mainly a listener, it's nuts.

Writers have tried to pigeonhole Arnold in one of those two categories, usually either to disparage or to apologize. As far as I can tell, the only reason for this is that they don't really know his important work, like the Sixth through Ninth Symphonies, at least as good as either of Walton's, which means extremely good. The question of influence raises its head here. Walton influenced Arnold, but Arnold influenced nobody as good. However, as George Bernard Shaw remarked, in art it matters less who came before you than who came after you. Haydn influenced Mozart. Mozart didn't directly influence anybody nearly as good as Haydn. The Classical style pretty much ended with him. Already Beethoven moves to other modes of expression. Yet most people don't rate Haydn better than Mozart. The general public has taken to Arnold's overtly pop pieces – the march from Bridge on the River Kwai, for example – without warming to the more abstract work. Unfortunately, Arnold felt strongly attracted to the abstract elements of music, like architecture, counterpoint, orchestration, and he mastered all these things. Although he didn't ignore emotions, he dealt in psychological landscapes complex, somewhat ambiguous, and below the surface. They demand real listener attention.

For years, people saw Arnold as a "jolly" composer, completely missing a darker subtext. They usually applied the term "Falstaffian" to him. Arnold liked a joke and cracked very good ones. He had a genius for friendship. However, he also had an autistic son and suffered from serious depression and alcoholism. His wives left him, probably not without cause. This is hardly a blithe spirit. It does come out in the music, especially in the late works, if one makes a small effort. Many of the works here belong to his late period, although some are reorchestrations by British composer David Ellis of earlier pieces. Ellis has also "edited" or prepared "performing versions" of some of the others. I don't know what either means, and the liner notes don't tell me.

Arnold wrote 18 concerti, many of them for odd combinations or instruments, like guitar, recorder, piano 3-hands, two violins, 28 players, and so on. He also wrote for star performers, many of whom were friends of his. The Cello Concerto, for Julian Lloyd Webber, belongs to his late period. Don't expect the big warm hug that might come to your mind when you think of cello concertos. In many ways, this is a typical example of Arnoldian abstraction. I can compare this work with something like Bach's Musikalisches Opfer or some of Das wohltemperierte Klavier as opposed to the cantatas and Passions, in that it attracts mainly by its elegant shape, its clarity of idea and argument. The first movement uses four thematic cells: a jumpy ascending line; a steadier downward line; semitones rocking from lower pitch to higher and back; an arpeggio on a minor chord. Arnold works here with simple material, easily remembered, and pulls off some amazing feats with apparently no effort at all. It turns out that through his alchemy these themes can either sound simultaneously or morph into one another. But I'd mislead if I left you the impression that he simply solved musical theorems. The emotional weather of the movement runs dark, full of restless worry, and it ends on a question – a bunch of abrupt stamping chords, out of the blue.

The slow second movement gives us more of the same. Arnold uses two ideas: in the key of e minor, B-G-F-E; in E major, E-F#-A-G, the latter a minor version of the finale main theme of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. We also hear a reminiscence of the earlier "rocking" theme of the opening movement and a standard 18th-century contrapuntal exercise. The mood becomes even bleaker than before. Often we get only one or two lines of music but many remarkable moments, the most memorable for me a duet between solo cello and solo trumpet and nobody else. Again, I have to wonder whether this means something significant to Arnold, who began as a virtuoso trumpeter. It puts me in mind of the composer saying farewell. Once more, the movement ends with an abrupt series of stamps, as if Arnold simply refuses to go on.

The third movement turns everything on its head. It begins with more orchestral stamps, but this time vigorous, even manic. The ideas seem to come from the first movement, this time seen from a more vigorous side of things. It's got a certain rough humor. The main idea, as Paul Harris points out in the notes, varies the nervous rising idea of the opening. The rocking semitone becomes a rocking whole tone. The minor-chord arpeggio transforms into a rising arpeggio (sometimes major, sometimes minor) with an added seventh (major or minor). The downward idea blossoms into a lyrical, almost relaxed Big Tune. After a solo cadenza, the concerto finally comes to a definite, fully satisfying stop.

The Flute Concertino is an Ellis orchestration of Arnold's Flute Sonatina for legendary LPO first flute Richard Adeney, a fellow student of Arnold's at the Royal College of Music. Among flutists, the sonatina has achieved the status of minor classic. Its proportions and its opening measures lead one to expect a light-hearted work, but Arnold pulls, I believe, his characteristic deception. Beside its opening measures of Nielsenian sunniness, one hears something more disturbing, almost angry, and I must say that Ellis's orchestration for string orchestra emphasizes this. The second movement is a somber little passacaglia, its drama a bit at odds with its proportions, and yet it satisfies overall. The finale, a mini-rondo, surprises, given what has gone before. It ambles along on its jazzy way over cocktail-piano harmonies, a kind of American-pop gymnopédie.

Danish recorder star Michala Petri has inspired three Arnold works: a fantasy for the solo instrument, a full-blown concerto, and the Fantasy for Recorder and String Quartet, a five-movement chamber suite of miniatures, each a well-cut gem. The last showcases both fleet fingers as well as a long, songful line. Again, Arnold stamps it with his hallmark elegance. Not only does it fit the recorder, but the quartet writing is superbly imaginative.

David Ellis has rewritten Arnold's early piano sonata (he wrote it at age 21), which I've never heard, turning it into a saxophone concerto. Based on Ellis's score, I suspect the piano writing isn't all that interesting, although Arnold later demonstrated a flair for its solo capabilities in works like Fantasy on a Theme of John Field. The musical ideas and their working out, however, have a certain fascination, especially in the first movement. Almost from the get-go, Arnold had the ability to clearly speak his mind and in an original way. The concerto lasts only about ten minutes, but it nevertheless leaves you satisfied. Again, each idea carries a lot of expressive weight. Once more, the first movement takes a small number of gestures and combines and recombines them, not so much in the traditional sonata way, but rather in a kaleidoscopic one. The sax-strings combination seems more plaintive than piano alone. The movement ends in a puff of smoke. Its slow successor – a rueful, bluesy tune – sings huskily of autumn. The finale begins attacca with a cheeky march which takes a few sharp, satirical turns, with a blowsy beer-hall moment. It interests me mainly because of its time of composition, the middle of World War II, since it has little to do with the heightened patriotism of the time, especially in England.

The Symphony for Strings is the only bit of pure Arnold on the program – unretouched, unreworked, unarranged. It too appears fairly early, when Arnold's about 25, just after the War. Already it shows a master composer. The radical minimalism of his materials particularly impresses me – how much mileage a rising minor-triad arpeggio with an added ninth contrasted with Bartók-like snaps and grindings gets in the first movement, for example. The approach to form follows an individual path. We don't have the usual first-movement classical sonata but again the almost whimsical play of one element against another. The slow second movement puts meanderings mostly up and down a scale over rising or falling semitones and alternates that or combines it with a falling arpeggio on a minor triad. Out of such meager material, Arnold generates a variety of mood: ennui, radiant lyricism, nervous expectation. Arnold ends the movement, or rather the movement just ends, out of gas. The finale begins as a tarantella over a rhythmic chordal pedal – that is, the same chord hammered over several measures. Arnold doesn't quite shed his debts to Stravinsky here, particularly the latter's Concerto in D. Both share a similar balletic bounce. The score ends on a full stop.

A wonderful disc. Raphael Wallfisch gives an intelligent and passionate account of the cello concerto. Carl Raven reveals the dark moods of the sax concerto. Esther Ingham on flute and John Turner on recorder do well in their works, although I don't get much of their personalities as players. Of the ensembles, I give the edge to Nicholas Ward and the Northern Chamber Orchestra rather than to Richard Howarth and the Manchester Sinfonia, but that may be due to the fact that the cello concerto and the symphony are bigger works. The sound is both full and clear, with the counterpoint especially so.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz