Comparisons have been made to Shostakovitch, citing Arnold as one of the greatest British, indeed twentieth-century symphonists; if only some areas of our musical intelligentsia and concert promoters felt the same way. The diverse, sometimes alarming contrasts of material quotations from popular music, military marches, and almost enforced feeling of joviality at one minute and total despair the next are Arnolds hallmarks. All this, we are assured in the likes of Mahler, Shostakovitch and Schnittke, is part of a profound statement but not, it would seem, as far as Arnold is concerned. This is nothing more than a grotesque form of snobbishness. The paucity of performances of the symphonies is cause for amazement: that no London orchestra (not least the LPO in which the composer served as principal trumpet at the beginning of his career) or the Proms have seen fit to perform so much as an English Dance this beggars belief! I can think of no other country that does such a magnificent job in running down its own composers! Hurrah for the BBC Philharmonic for programming all Arnolds symphonies, which at least ensures a Radio 3 broadcast.
The charming Oboe Concerto, written for Leon Goossens in 1951, lasts just twelve minutes and puts soloists through their paces. A lively jig makes up the middle movement, whilst the finale has a heartfelt lyrical quality that borders on the saccharine; somehow, as in so many Arnold pieces, the lyricism teeters on the edge but retains its dignity. The first movement has a wonderful tune that is hinted at several times before blossoming out in its full glory. Jennifer Galloway has the measure of this delightful creation, giving an elegant and limpid performance.
The Symphonies inhabit a very different world No.7 being one of Arnolds most angry and uncompromising works; a curious state of affairs considering that it is dedicated to the composers three children and partly written in the idyllic home of Arnolds friend Sir William Walton (another composer who had to put up with a good deal of critical sniping). The contrasts in mood are more extreme than possibly anywhere else in Arnolds output a bizarre ragtime march, Irish folk music, military-sounding music, long, yearning tunes all fall over each other with breathtaking speed. The austere slow movement includes a long, tragic trombone solo, beautifully played here by Paul Reynolds. The close of the Seventh displays another Arnoldian characteristic the unexpected, sometimes impatient and uncomfortable ending. The big tonal chords that round-off the Seventh, after all that has gone before, seem unconvincing; perhaps they are meant to be a shrug of the shoulders, declaring that whatever the trials and tribulations of life, one just has to get on and make the best of it. The Chandos recording gives a typically upfront and brilliant sound to the virtuosic BBC Philharmonic; Gamba is clearly in love with the music.
The Eighth Symphony was a result of an American commission, written for the Albany Symphony in 1979. Arnold had spent some time living in the Irish Republic while composing No.8 a disturbing parallel, perhaps, between the troubled history of the Irish people and the composers own imminent emotional and physical collapse. Whatever, Gamba makes a strong case for this, one of Arnolds least familiar Symphonies he appreciates the wide polarity of moods, not least another over-the-top and blistering ending that leaves the listener asking why and how. The perky tune of the last movement is a close relative of the English Dances, which appears several times in varied orchestration this movement is akin to a concerto for orchestra, each instrument or section having a turn with this curiously awkward but memorable invention. The BBC Phil rises to the challenge and play brilliantly.
Only four opus numbers but several non-productive years come between symphonies 8 and 9. It was only with the care of his devoted companion, Anthony Day, that Arnold survived the early 1980s. Arnold has called this period a "journey through hell". The Ninth Symphony is a poignant and disturbing end to his symphonic career. Mostly due to the efforts of his great champion, the late Sir Charles Groves, did the first performance come about even Arnolds publisher turned it down (!), afraid that the length of the piece (50 minutes) and pages of empty bars would make this fragile music impossible to promote.
The scoring is indeed sparse in the extreme, bringing to mind late Schnittke bar after bar of two or three instruments playing long, harrowing lines. The last movement is an astonishing 25-minute Lento (longer than the first three movements put together), a desolate, lonely threnody. Many have commented that the Ninth goes too far in its portrayal of mental and creative collapse; it is though evidently the summit of Arnolds achievement. It is hardly surprising that the composer felt he could not compose much else after bearing his soul in such a way.
The Ninth is a very difficult work to bring off, the sparseness of symphonic argument setting a trap to the unprepared. Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic give the breezy Giubiloso third movement (a ghostly reminder of Arnoldian high jinks) everything they have, but still have something in reserve for an almost unbearably intense finale. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the serene ending. Is it real? Is it serene? Or is Arnold still holding back? With superb performances and sound, this is a most urgently recommended tribute to a remarkable man.
- BBC Radio 3 Monday, 22 October, at 7.30 live relay from Royal Northern College of Music of Arnolds Tam OShanter Overture, Scottish Dances and Symphonies 5 and 6. Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC Philharmonic. Click here to Listen on-line
- Wigmore Hall Tuesday and Thursday, 23 and 25 October, two concerts of Arnolds chamber music in the presence of the composer. 020 7935 2141 www.wigmore-hall.org.uk