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CD Review

Malcolm Arnold

  • A Grand, Grand Overture, Op. 57
  • Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 Hands), Op. 104
  • Carnival of Animals, Op. 72
  • Symphony #2, Op. 40
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
David Nettle and Richard Markham, pianos
Conifer Classics 75605-51240-2
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I must admit I enjoy comedy far more than tragedy. Falstaff seems to me a deeper character than Hamlet and, furthermore, one I have actually run across. G. K. Chesterton once observed that it was far more difficult to be funny than profound. After all, one may or may not be profound (who's to say?). Funny is much more clear-cut. Comedy certainly does not exclude the profound. It often deals with the same issues as tragedy and as deeply, but without pulling a long face.

Among great poems, far fewer make you laugh than weep, at least intentionally. Whimsy (a particularly annoying form of narcism) doesn't count. Composers with a sense of humor, at least in their music, seem even rarer: Mozart, Beethoven, Poulenc, Satie, and Haydn come immediately to mind. Many composers have humorous moods, but not in their more ambitious work. Peter Schickele, a musical Edgar Bergen, can certainly tell a joke, but mainly through P. D. Q. Bach. His own voice is a Romantic one.

Which brings me to Malcolm Arnold. Arnold belongs to a "lost generation" of British composers - including Alwyn, Simpson, Maconchy, Rawsthorne, Leighton, and Lloyd - whose careers began around World War II. Almost all of these composers used a non-serial idiom and, with a couple of exceptions, could usually be described as belonging to the Walton wing of British music. Their music met with two problems: their idiom put them in competition with the older generation of Vaughan Williams, Walton, and Britten; they came up when serialism was the grail and battle-cry of the younger generation of Davies and Birtwhistle. The BBC, the great proselytizing force for British music, tended to ignore their work in favor of the young Turks. All of the composers mentioned above got commissions, but their work seemed no longer to matter to critical discussion. Vaughan Williams' and Walton's reputations reached their nadir in the 50s and 60s, while Britten and Tippett struck out in new directions, nudged by postwar musical developments. The question for this lost generation became where to go after Vaughan Williams and Walton. For these composers, the answer did not lie in finding a new style or a voice that had never been heard before. In fact, the main charge against their music may well be that a listener has trouble separating one from the other. An individual voice, of course, isn't everything, but it is a significant something. What these composers offer instead is an individual attitude toward established materials and methods. In Alwyn, for example, the music often grows out of a basic interval: in the Symphony #3, that interval is the major and minor third and their inversions. Leighton's music is marked by a patrician intellect and a certain mystical cool. Simpson gets his inspiration from late Beethoven and the Mahler of the 5th Symphony.

Of these composers, Arnold has the strongest artistic profile. Harmonically, he often emphasizes the conflict between two distant keys. More importantly, he has a Mahlerian sense of juxtaposing "high" and "low." Quite frankly, he often shocks me. He could be going along in a high serious vein and suddenly throw in a rhumba. Mahler never shocks me in this way, although he probably gave his first audiences fits. I suspect that the "vulgar" elements in Mahler have become more acceptable, in large part due to Mahler. Furthermore, Arnold beautifully avoids the cliche. In his guitar concerto, he ignores the entire Spanish tradition and bases the concerto on hard bop - outside of Gershwin, one of the few compositions that fully integrates jazz and symphonic language.

Arnold gets stereotyped as a "merry" composer. He does joke in church, as it were, but his late work tends to be rather dark - see especially the Symphony #7. An attempted suicide and the father of an autistic son, Arnold hardly fits the description of "no worries." His laughter very often has pain in it. On the other hand, he does appreciate a good joke and has the happy ability to concoct a few. The work on this disc represents largely that side of him.

Arnold wrote two of the pieces here - "A Grand, Grand Overture" and "Carnival of Animals" - for the legendary Hoffnung festivals. The overture is scored for full symphony orchestra, organ, 3 vacuum cleaners, an electric floor polisher, and 4 rifles - a slapstick orchestration that calls for and gets slapstick humor. But there are subtle jokes as well. Arnold seems to have been the first composer to have noticed that Hoovers and floor polishers have pitch (or several pitches, depending on their settings). A group of them can even do chords. Accordingly, he has written the overture in "their" key. They also add a sonority to the orchestra, something like a wind machine's. One joke doesn't come off: the hoary one of the piece that never ends. Beethoven barely gets away with it in the Fifth Symphony. Strauss in the Symphonia Domestica almost never does (depends on a lucky, great conductor). Aside from that, it's not only a hoot, but the overture has real musical distinction, with a main theme that would do well in a "major" work. In "Carnival of Animals," Arnold seeks to round out Saint-Saëns's initial catalogue. "The Giraffe" is a poetic combo of grace and gaucherie. The sheep "follow one another aimlessly," with the occasional lamb suddenly springing straight up in the air. Cows low and trot to a loping blues. Mice scurry, scratch, and squeak to very imaginative orchestration. "Jumbo" does a Fantasia-hippo ballet to Delibes. "Chiroptera" (bats) provides a "visual" for the concert audience. Orchestra members saw and blow furiously without sound (since bats are mostly inaudible) until a final C on a tubular bell.

The Symphony #2 begins with a lovely "walking tune" by the clarinet, in effect (if not actual music) like the opening of Beethoven's Symphony #6 or parts of Sibelius's Second. This movement is mostly relaxed. The Scherzo begins sounding like Waltonian fizz, but gradually darker elements get introduced until a savage outburst on timpani. The opening material returns but can no longer be regarded as froth. It becomes a slap in the face. The slow movement will depress you as quickly as anything I know. It seems the dark side of Mahler's first. Bird calls on the flute lead, not to joy, but apparently to complete dejection. The music barely moves for over half its length and then settles into a heavy-footed, Mahlerian funeral march before it sinks back into near- static torpor. Traditionally, the finale dispels or transforms the solemnity of what has gone before. To that extent, Arnold is a traditionalist. However, in the context of the previous movements, the main rondo theme sounds hysterical, even goofy, rather than really joyful. Here is Arnold's trading in the "shock of the cheap." Furthermore, the episodes recall the anxieties of the scherzo and slow movement, and the grand closing seems pro forma. This is a symphony of great artistic risk. I'm not sure the risk comes off (as I say, I barely know what to make of it). How its commentators have been able to regard it as "light" mystifies me. Credit most go to Handley, I think, who surpasses Charles Grove's (the conductor most associated with Arnold) own, with a reading of very great insight.

Even if he were nothing else, Arnold is the compleat professional. His enemies have to admit this. This quality shows up particularly in his concerto writing. He not only understands the instruments he writes for, but he has definite ideas about the performers' musical "personalities." The Concerto for Piano (3 Hands) addresses the special problems of the team it was written for: husband and wife, Cyril Smith and Phyllis Selleck. Smith had lost the use of his left hand. Several composers responded with works, including Bliss and Jacob, as well as Arnold. Arnold's is an heroic concerto. The presence of two right hands, as the liner notes point out, contribute not only to a bright, ringing texture, but ensure that the piano sonorities cut through the orchestra. The first movement exploits the sound of bells. The second movement seems heir to the slow movement of Ravel's concerto in G. The third hand gets to sing, and sing beautifully. The finale once again juxtaposes high and low, as the pianists go into a loopy "barrelhouse" rag - so infectious that, during the work's première at the Proms, the audience demanded the movement be encored (a rare event, by the way).

Performances are always capable, with the symphony as the standout, from both the composer's and the conductor's view of things. Sound is clean and clear. Recommended.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz