Arnold: Symphony No. 7 & Philharmonic Concerto - Yates
Dutton CDLX 7318
Classical - Orchestral
Malcolm Arnold: Symphony No. 7, Op. 113; Philharmonic Concerto, Op. 120; Fantasy on a theme of John Field, Op. 116
John Field: Nocturne No. 7 in C major
Peter Donohoe, piano
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Review by John Miller - January 29, 2015
This disc could be a tribute to Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), an English composer of exhilarating music in most of its forms. His output included including 132 film scores, nine symphonies, seven ballets, two operas, 20 concertos, a considerable quantity of chamber music and various works for wind and brass instruments. Living life to the full as he did, he paid for his excesses with physical and mental illness, including two attempts to take his own life in the after-effects of a divorce. While much of his music is optimistic and shows him to have been a fine melodist, some of it is very dark and even violent. This suggests that some traits in Arnold's use of music was his way to explore certain mental conditions, which reminds me of the Swedish symphonist Allan Pettersson's style, a man similarly burdened by illness.
Malcolm Arnold moved to Ireland in 1972, attracted by its lush scenery and drawn to its Celtic music. Here, however, his behavior became increasingly erratic and, in 1977, his second marriage collapsed and he returned to England, exhausted and unable to work for several years. Nevertheless, he wrote several important works while in Dublin (in a period of great instability for him), which are the main works on this issue from Dutton, recorded in June 2014.
Arnold's Seventh Symphony gestated in his friend William Walton's house on Iscia island just off Naples, but he left there hastily after a furious argument with Walton. The Symphony was finished in Dublin during 1973 as a commission from the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and its three movements (fast-slow-fast) are dedicated to his children, Katherine, Robert and Edward, whose names, together with the names of his wives Shelia and Isobel, were bafflingly ciphered in the score. The score itself was otherwise normal, except it required three percussionists, one playing a huge cowbell which gaines significance as the work progresses. Arnold relished emulating Charles Ives in slipping alien music into his own; Caribbean percussion for example, and at the end of the third movement, Celtic harp and piccolo playing an Irish song, which morphs to an Irish reel with the strokes of a deep marching drum, probably a memento of young son Edward, a fan of The Chieftains. This is a substantial work, not at all easy to deal with at times, bursting with charm elsewhere. The clear overview with which Martin Yates steers the RSNO pays dividends, with a stunning gamut of instrumental colour rarely heard.
His next major Dublin work was the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field Op. 116 (1975). Field was an early Romantic pianist, a Dubliner who effectively invented the solo Nocturne, inspiring Chopin to write his Nocturnes. One might look forward to Arnold's Fantasy being sincerely beautiful, perhaps on the trail of Erno Dohnanyi's 'Variations on a Nursery Song' with their gentle humour. Not so! Piers Burton-Page, for 30 years a reviewer for the BBC and now a free-lancer, wrote the astute notes for this disc, where he calls the Fantasy "Mad". Innocently termed "a piano concerto in one movement" by the composer, it is instead a thorough blasting of Field with all kind of gross indignities from a man deeply disturbed and lashing out on music which so easily captured ITS audience.
Without doubt, this attempted destruction of a radiant little piano piece is horrendously effective, with a dazzling use of large orchestra and piano which could well indicate genius. From time to time the piano is allowed to sing Field alone, only to be brutally interrupted by a rampant orchestra. A train of variations show the little nocturne as a wild march, circus music and other wicked parodies. And, at the end, Arnold glorifies the piano with the full glutinous Romantic Hollywood treatment, before stopping with a harshly dissonant sneer. I didn't find this piece mad. Perhaps Black Humour might be invoked, and I suspect that Arnold could be drawing on his happy association with the Gerald Hoffnung Concerts (1956, 1958, 1961 and 1988 in London). The aim of these still popular "concerts" was to "take the Mickey" from classical orchestras, composers and performers. One of Arnold's several joking programme items was 'A Grand, Grand Overture for orchestra, including three vacuum cleaners, an electric polisher, and four rifles. Dedicated to President Hoover'. So Arnold was already well-primed in humorously attacking the whole Musical Establishment, which could easily be harnessed by his disturbed state in Dublin.
The esteemed Mancunian pianist Peter Donohoe certainly has the technical power to perform the Fantasy's transcendental difficulties, and his performance is breathtaking, as is the brilliantly scored orchestral part. Donohoe's gently beguiling Field passages can leap instantly to chords with armfulls of clashing notes, launch furious fast passages and even conjure up a nightmarishly technical cadenza. All are played with insouciance and animated relish. On the following track, Donohoe alone plays Field's Op. 116 (1821) 'Rèverie' with innocent gentleness, showing even that after suffering dire attack, it remains unchanged.
Arnold's Fantasy is a highly original piece. To some it will be horrible in concept, unless performed and listened to with dark humour in mind. Not surprisingly, it rarely appears at concerts, so this fine Dutton Epoch recording gives us a chance to evaluate (and possibly enjoy) it at leisure.
First on the disc, but the last of Arnold's significant Dublin works, comes his Philharmonic Concerto Op. 120 (1976) - certainly a sane piece. It was the fruit of a commission from the London Philharmonic's tour of the USA in its bi-centenary year. Arnold was a trumpeter in the orchestra during the War; this piece must have brought back many memories, and indeed the work's movements provide fireworks for the brass, not to mention for the other instruments, especially the percussion. 'Intrada' suggests a procession, 'Aria' has a winding tune on a viola, then a more cantabile first for a solo violin and next for a violin and harp. 'Chacony' bursts with energy and the required orchestral displays, ever more garish.
Sonically, this disc was quite puzzling for me. It was recorded in Glasgow's RSBO Centre's Henry Wood Hall, which in my experience has a very good acoustic for symphonic music. Here, however, the orchestra sounds very distant, with an unusually deep sounding perspective for brass and percussion, until the volume control was moved up a very long way. At that point, the timbres were more real and immediate, although sporting a dying ambience with a pulsating rather metallic sound, even with the stereo (there is no multi-track). Oddly, there was also a sense of some dryness in the acoustic which made for sudden cut off of tutti sounds - and that of the piano, too. I found myself being drawn to features of the recording, which tended to distract from the music. Good features were the bass drum and tamtam, with their splendid deep attack and resonance.
Given the paucity of SA-CD versions of Malcolm Arnold's music, I don't want my issues about the sonics to obscure the fact that this is a unique set of pieces, played by the very motivated and expert RSNO under Martin Yates, who has a great affinity for and knowledge of Arnold's repertoire. The presence of Peter Donohoe in brilliant form is another feather in this disc's cap. Recommended.
Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net