Malcolm Arnold was a very good composer, and he seemed to enjoy conducting as well. His late efforts are very late, and show him as a frail and weak man. So these early Everest recordings – as reissued here by Countdown Media – are a valuable introduction to one of England's more accessible composers. If downloads are your thing, iTunes has a download, but I prefer the Amazon-manufactured CDs, which also include the original LP liner notes.
Arnold's Four Scottish Dances have everything you'd want in four dances; they are short, sweet, and full of good, original tunes. The London Philharmonic sounds terrific here, with a playfulness and assertiveness that is not always present from their recordings of this period. Arnold's complete Dances (English, Irish, Cornish, Welsh and Scottish) are heard to best effect either on Lyrita – also with the composer at the helm – or on Naxos with Arnold-specialist Andrew Penny. But that's taking nothing away from these efforts, which are excellent in their own right.
Still, it's the Symphony #3 which is the far more substantial item here. It's not as well-known as Arnold's later symphonies, but remains an exciting and engaging personal statement. The liner notes are – to put it charitably – unhelpful in understanding the work, and are all the more frustrating when you consider that most of them come from Arnold himself. Still, it's straightforward enough; the first movement builds into a thrilling scherzo, the second movement is richly scored and full of color, and the third movement is somewhat like a rondo. It doesn't sound all that exciting on paper, but the Philharmonic plays wonderfully throughout. Wonder of wonders, Everest and Arnold were able to get this occasionally stiff band to really dig in and make some gnarly sounds. That means an unusually rich bass, and some intense, even harrowing climaxes. For his part, Arnold bears down and draws every ounce of emotional power from his score. The final pages really ignite; it's thrilling. Nothing is perfect, and the London orchestra has some bumps here and there. Still, as evidence of a healthy and happy Arnold in a potent artistic partnership, this is worth it if you love British music, and probably even if you don't.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman