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CD Review

Malcolm Arnold


  • Overture "Beckus the Dandipratt", Op. 5
  • Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, Op. 116
  • Concerto for 2 Pianos, 3 Hands, Op. 104 *
  • Concerto for Piano Duet & Strings, Op. 32 *
Phillip Dyson, piano
* Kevin Sargent, piano
Ulster Orchestra/Esa Keikkliä
Naxos 8.570531 TT: 66:36
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Janus.

The public image of the British composer Malcolm Arnold – jovial, Falstaffian, comfortable – flies in the face of the truth. He had the critical misfortune of establishing a career in the postwar era, when Britain went through one of its bouts of bemoaning its artistic "insularity," by which critics seemed to mean that serial music didn't get enough play. The very fact that audiences loved Arnold's music was held against him, since critics could then dismiss him as superficial and cheap – a mere entertainer. Apparently, they forgot about Mozart. However, throughout his life, Arnold suffered from psychotic, depressive episodes. He was the father of an autistic son. An abusive alcoholic and a womanizer, he was kicked out by his first and second wives. One had to take out a court order to keep him away. He tried to commit suicide at least twice. If Arnold's critics had gone to the trouble of listening beyond the conservative musical language, they would have heard a very dark side come out in works like the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies. Yet he also had a genius for friendship. He wrote many works for his musical friends. As a point of interest, these works reflect the strengths and requirements of his dedicatees.

Arnold began as a prodigy. He played several instruments but was in particular demand as a virtuoso trumpeter in British orchestras. He could have made a very nice living just as a player and teacher. However, he wanted to compose. His idiom comes from William Walton (no big surprise, a fan). Like Walton, he had an intense interest in gorgeous musical sound; his great hero in this regard was Berlioz. Nevertheless, he maintains a very personal slant. Arnold's emotional world is more shadowed, more complex, more frightening than Walton's. However, also like Walton, he wrote brilliant "light" music, although even here, something more extreme creeps in. A Grand, Grand Overture, one of the classics of the Hoffnung Festivals, is laid out for full symphony orchestra plus organ, three vacuum cleaners, electric floor polisher, and four rifles. Despite its daft orchestration, it happens to be a solid piece of music. There's also a Grand Concerto Gastronomique for Eater, Waiter, Food, and Orchestra, which, unfortunately, I haven't heard. Another thing I believe that separates Arnold's music from Walton's is how Arnold's outrageous humor often combines with his sharp sense of tragedy. In some cases, it shocks an audience. In many ways, the contrast reminds me of Mahler's juxtaposition – even interpenetration – of "high" and "low" and sense of the grotesque.

Arnold composed Beckus the Dandipratt at the precocious age of 21, and its absolute assurance must have knocked people sideways. This piece more or less launched Arnold's composing career. "Beckus" (I heard a BBC announcer pronounce this as "Bee-kus") is a made-up name, and a "dandipratt" (a word introduced in the 15th century) comes from a term for an old English coin, worth about tuppence. It also means a dwarf or pygmy, someone small or childish, or even a child. Most writers seem to think Arnold meant a street urchin. The overture certainly bustles with street energy. I think of it as an update of Strauss's Eulenspiegel, but much more tightly written. Even at this early date, Arnold produced one of the finest English scores of light music.

The Fantasy on a Theme of John Field (1975) is filled with the Angst of late Arnold. He wrote it to no commission, mainly because he wanted to write for the pianist John Lill, whom he had heard in concert. Lill premiered the work. Field, of course, provided the model of the Romantic nocturne, which Chopin took to its height. Like Arnold, Field was also a depressive alcoholic, so more than a little composer identification may have taken place here. In some ways, the piece is misnamed. So much of the material originates with Arnold. Indeed, the composer uses only part of a Field nocturne. The rest is original material. I must admit I'm not a big fan of John Field, and this theme is nothing much. However, Arnold uses it in a very dramatic way. The Fantasy begins in a dark world. Fitfully, the theme, which represents light, breaks in, only to be shouted down by an angry orchestra. That's the general strategy of the work. Arnold suffered from severe mental instability at the time. Nevertheless, the work has considerable, concentrated (even if ultimately depressing) power. I disagree with Paul Harris's liner notes. Harris sees the ending as an "[extraordinary] affirmation of hope." It may start out that way, but the ending is angrily in the minor (keep in mind that Field's theme is in C major). Instead, it strikes me as a portrait in self-loathing.

The Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 Hands), on the other hand, counts as one of the composer's happiest works and undisputed popular successes. Commissioned by the BBC Proms, he wrote it for the husband and wife team of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. Smith, one of the great British piano virtuosi and a brilliant champion of the Rachmaninoff cycle for piano and orchestra, lost the use of his left arm in 1956, due to thrombosis. He kept performing as part of a 3-hand piano duo with his wife. In addition to Arnold, Arthur Bliss and Gordon Jacob also wrote concerti for the two.

However, neither Bliss nor Jacob really considered the question of what an additional right hand might mean for the music of such a concerto. For Arnold, it suggested music of additional brilliance and of great poignance. Although Harris hears tragedy in the first movement, I get instead the exhilaration of bells surrounding a meditative middle, reminiscent of cool jazz. Beginning with a right-hand solo over a hushed orchestra, the second movement reverses that rhetorical structure: a Satie gymnopédie surrounds a troubled collapse, which in turn affects the return of the main theme, emphasizing its sadness. The finale opens with a bizarrely capering section (which Harris misidentifies as a rumba). It resolves with a brilliant stroke, as the pianists launch into a "barrelhouse" rag. The audience loved it. They demanded an encore. Incidentally, despite the concerto's huge success, the BBC never commissioned Arnold for another work. The idiots.

The Piano-Duet Concerto comes from the early Fifties, off of an extremely hectic period for the composer: film work, the incredibly popular English Dances, and barbaric and arduous insulin shock therapy for a psychotic episode. Unlike Harris, I'd contend that if you didn't know the latter, the music wouldn't give you a hint, although once you do know Arnold's mental state, certain passages become suggestive. For example, Harris calls attention to a "manic" scalar string passage in the final movement, while I'd point out long passages of sluggishness in the first, indicative of the torpor side effect of insulin shock. But neither of these things make the concerto matter. To me, it's one of the finest of the old century, lost in the huge pile of other Arnold concerti. Arnold writes incisively, with great invention, tight control, and the feeling of absolute freedom, that the composer could do any one of fifty things and, while all of them would be good, he has chosen the best. He builds the first movement – akin to sonata, but not a sonata – from two motives, a fanfare and an arpeggiated seventh chord. The second movement, a passacaglia of sorts, opens with a sequence of what I call "magic" chords: one chord unpredictable from its predecessor and yet beautiful as a whole. The archetypical sequence for me is the opening to Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia. Unlike most passacaglias, however, it's not a set of variations over a repeating bass line. Instead, one usually finds the passacaglia "ground" in the upper voices, and often Arnold goes beyond the "ground" for a few or even many measures. The ground itself is unusual: not a theme, so much as a set of descending chromatic sighs. Eight variations lead to a culminating, jazz-waltzy ninth and an extended coda, based on the introduction's magic chords. The finale has that zippy, headlong quality of its counterpart in Ravel's G-major concerto. It resembles a rondo-sonata, more sonata than rondo, with two main ideas – one very rhythmic, the other another jazzy waltz with Prokofieffian side-slipping chords, which in the course of the movement inject deep emotional notes.

This CD belongs to yet another Naxos series, "British Piano Concertos." I have the 3-hand concerto in both the Sellick/Smith recording (with Arnold conducting) on EMI, and Markham & Nettle with Vernon Handley on Conifer (actually, ArkivCD reissue). This stacks up very, very well against both, and it costs less than either. The performances are all quite exciting as well as thoughtful, and with Naxos you get the Field Fantasy and the Piano-Duet concerto as well (again, both available on more expensive ArkivCDs). Phillip Dyson and Kevin Sargent make beautiful music together, and Dyson penetrates the depths of the Fantasy. However, the glory of the CD lies in the collaboration among soloists, orchestra and conductor. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.