Feature Review: The Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival [The Nine Symphonies]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

The Royal and Derngate, Northampton, England

Friday-Sunday, October 21-23, 2011

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006). Photograph: Mike Purton

One might have expected the Sixth Malcolm Arnold Festival to have marked the composer’s 90th-anniversary in style, but to have scheduled his nine numbered symphonies over the course of three days was an ambitious gesture by Paul Harris, the Festival Director, who also introduced the weekend and provided continuity. (Incidentally, the redoubtable Malcolm Arnold Society celebrates its 20th-anniversary this year.) As it was, eight orchestras were to be heard over seven concerts – a logistical feat whose smooth unfolding owed much to the professionalism of staff at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate. The result was a unique chance to experience a notable symphonic cycle over a concentrated time-frame and within programmes which, for the most part, helped illuminate the main works. Moreover, any fears that mainly amateur orchestras might prove unequal to the task were quickly as well as consistently overcome.

Besides the symphonies, the festival included a number of Arnold’s chamber works that in themselves offered welcome context. A Friday lunchtime event at the Guildhall featured Fine Arts Brass in pieces typifying those stark contrasts within the composer’s output: the First Brass Quintet (1961) remains a touchstone of ensemble writing whose unforced vigour and lyricism came over in an enthusiastic if slightly ragged performance, while the alternately angular and aggressive Symphony for Brass (1978) was given a powerfully immediate account in which the group was bolstered by players drawn from the Royal Welsh College of Music Brass Ensemble.

A welcome feature of the festival was the involvement of musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in a sequence of recitals. Saturday morning featured Kenny Sturgeon in the bittersweet Oboe Sonatina (1951), Sarah Hayes in the wistful Flute Sonatina (1948) and Fraser Langton in the engaging Clarinet Sonatina (1951) – all three doing justice to works whose attractions are the greater for their brevity. Saturday early-afternoon saw an impromptu recital of the Five Fantasies that Arnold wrote for the 1966 Wind Instrument Competition held in Birmingham – Eanna Monaghan, Langton, Christine Smith, Hayes and Sturgeon making the most of these superior test-pieces for bassoon, clarinet, horn, flute and oboe respectively. Saturday late-afternoon found Hayes and Langton nimbly despatching the brief though by no means uncharacteristic Fantasy for Flute and Clarinet (1961), while Scott Mitchell clearly relished the Ireland-like pensiveness of Three Pieces for piano (1943). Sunday afternoon then brought two very different chamber pieces – the substantial and intricately contrapuntal Wind Quintet followed by the economical and warmly humorous Three Shanties (both 1942), in both of which the agile interplay of the performers added appreciably to the conviction of the performances.

Arnold’s non-symphonic orchestral music was understandably little in evidence, though Saturday evening’s concert featured two pieces stemming from his involvement with the Hoffnung Music Festivals. Carnival of Animals (1959) is occasionally revived and should be heard more regularly for the piquancy of its depictions of gawky Giraffes, canonic sheep, cavorting cows, scurrying mice, dextrous elephants and aleatoric bats – interspersed with witty poems from members of Northampton’s Malcolm Arnold Academy, stylishly read by Martha Shrimpton and William Sitwell. The Ealing Symphony was in its collective element here as in Grand Concerto Gastronomique (1961), which appears to have gone unheard for half-a-century: scored for ‘Eater, Waiter, Food and Orchestra’, this 20-minute (and highly English!) precursor of 1960s performance-art was admirably ‘served up’ by Richard Brooman, Shrimpton and an elegantly Schubertian vocalise from Jennifer Smith, yet the musical content proved surprisingly effective on its own terms: a conflation of Arnold off-cuts, to be sure, though one that was not merely apposite to the course at hand but deftly assembled as an extended span of superior library music. Well worth periodic revival and not just at Arnold-centred events such as this.

As to the smattering of music not by Arnold, the Fine Arts Brass recital featured two pieces by Philip Wood – the lively Fanfare: Beckus and the personable Brass Quintet, both heard for the first time. The RSC’s Saturday afternoon recital found room for Ireland’s Fantasy Sonata, its gradual yet determined progress from doubt to defiance vividly conveyed by Langton and Mitchell, then Sunday afternoon’s recital included Gilbert Vinter’s Hunter’s Moon – limpidly rendered by Smith and Mitchell – and Gordon Jacob’s laconic Bassoon Partita, ably despatched by Monaghan. In between, Mitchell was an incisive exponent of Paul Harris’s recent Piano Sonatina.

Friday evening saw the Cambridgeshire Symphony give a rousing account of Eric Coates’s Dambusters March and offer sympathetic backing to Claudia Moore-Gillon in Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Saturday morning brought Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto from the Slaithwaite Philharmonic with Philip Robertson as the capable soloist, while Saturday afternoon had the University of London Symphony in a cautious rendering of the ‘Storm’ Interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes and the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra power through Walton’s Crown Imperial. Saturday evening saw the Ealing Symphony commence with Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals, an engaging account undone by prefacing each movement with Ogden Nash’s doggerel masquerading as poetry – which not even Shrimpton and Sitwell could vindicate. Sunday morning had Shostakovich’s Festive Overture with the combined Hull Philharmonic and East Riding Youth orchestras, then Sunday evening reversed the usual practice in its placing of Brahms’s Double Concerto (Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich) and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in the second half; a procedure apparently favoured by Arnold but surely not after his Ninth Symphony. Your reviewer left the building at the interval.

It goes without saying that the nine symphonies are central to Malcolm Arnold’s composing: a cycle, moreover, which mirrors his career to an unwitting degree. A pity the acerbic Symphony for Strings (1946) could not have also been included (perhaps in that final concert?), but the cycle still got off to a fine start with the First Symphony (1949), uncompromising in its emotional immediacy and often austere textures. Directing the Cambridgeshire Symphony Orchestra, Steve Bingham secured a committed response in the first movement’s pivoting between rhetoric and rumination, and had the measure of the slow movement’s intently simmering unease. The fugal junketing that launches the finale was incisively handled, not least the sardonic march which suddenly steps forth, and while tension marginally unravelled in the weary recessional that follows, the closing pages lacked nothing in defiance. That few symphonic cycles have been launched this unequivocally was never in doubt.

For many years his best known contribution to the genre, the Second Symphony (1953) also admits of greater poise and these forces responded with an account that brought out the first movement’s tonal and expressive deftness – the familiar nonchalance now firmly in place – as well as the scherzo’s corresponding drive and aggression. The slow movement is among the composer’s finest achievements, a lament with funeral-march overtones that evokes its inner desolation with an exquisite poignancy, while the finale audibly gained from its oblique episodes not being played down in the context of its irrepressible main theme – so making for an apotheosis whose jubilance was the greater for having been earned. If the playing was not quite as focussed overall, this may partly be because the work has not lacked for notable performances over the years, though such failings as there were went for little in the context of a performance which got to the heart of the matter.

Leavening its affirmation with a notable equivocation, the Third Symphony (1957) feels the most problematic of the cycle’s earlier instalments. Benjamin Ellin and the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra initially seemed unsure quite how to pitch the first movement’s alternations between doubt and decisiveness, but the development was powerfully sustained while the coda was hectic without being hectoring. The slow movement is a (too?) lengthy sequence of variations on its elegiac opening theme; one whose effortful unfolding through some of the composer’s most sombre passages from this period was not always as purposeful here as it needed to be, yet there was no lack of plangent address in the dramatic coda. After which the finale’s quizzical humour might feel too easy an escape, but Ellin kept a tight rein on its progress towards a coda almost contemptuous of its own optimism. Not an account that solved all the conundrums posed, but a capable and engaging one nonetheless.

Not least for its diversity of ideas, the Fourth Symphony (1960) seems a demonstrably more contemporary statement and one to which the University of London Symphony Orchestra was evidently attuned. Although Daniel Capps did not ‘take’ the work to his players as had his predecessors in this cycle, he was always in control of a first movement whose juxtaposing of old-world elegance – via one of Arnold’s most effortless melodies, perfectly phrased here – with urban grittiness was vividly conveyed; as equally in a scherzo whose dynamic reticence helps conceal a wealth of expressive subtlety and technical finesse. The slow movement needed just a little more room to breathe so as to confirm it as among the composer’s most eloquent, but the finale proved a resounding success – its provocative stylistic interplay culminating in the brazen emergence of a march-past whose ruthlessness is then pointedly outflanked by the sheer conviction of its closing pages.

Allotting the Fifth Symphony (1961) to the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra was an astute move, giving this youngest in overall profile of the weekend’s ensembles the chance to encounter Arnold’s most all-encompassing and representative such piece. An evocation of family and friends departed, the first movement reconfigures sonata-form in questing terms; its underlying angst opening-out in a slow movement whose stark central climax helps place the achingly expressive main theme in the greatest possible relief. Peter Dunkley’s direction was especially insightful here and hardly less so in the impetuous scherzo that follows, though the jazzy syncopation of its trio might have benefitted from being less driven. The finale’s confrontation between disparate ideas was powerfully handled, and if the climactic reappearance of the slow-movement theme could have been even more spine-tingling, the void into which it then collapses was palpable in its resigned despair.

If, by comparison, the Sixth Symphony (1967) seems to play its emotional cards more guardedly, the overall impact of this shortest of the cycle cannot be gainsaid. Bringing the latest instalment of their ongoing traversal (one per year) to the festival, John Gibbons and the Ealing Symphony Orchestra had the Arnold idiom well in hand – not least the first movement whose fractious exchanges are given purpose by an underlying ‘walking bass’ that erupts into cascading discords at the climax. Here, too, the slow movement’s blues-driven interplay of elegy, dance and funeral march – often difficult to integrate – was successfully brought off right through to its fateful closing bars, while the finale’s not unfamiliar ground-plan of alternating its resolute main theme with more equivocal asides was far from the anti-climax it sometimes seems: emerging here as a cohesive as well as necessary means of clinching the overall design. A fine performance of the ‘dark horse’ of this cycle.

Which epithet could hardly be applied to the Seventh Symphony (1973), the most overwhelming of Arnold’s nine and a tough challenge such as the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra met head on. It doubtless helped to have Andrew Penny – along with the late Vernon Handley the only conductor to have recorded the cycle complete – at the helm; his control over the larger picture drawing an uninhibited response in the alternately brutal and supplicatory first movement that fairly exploded towards the end of its coda, then shaping the slow movement with understated rightness such that the soulful main theme reached its apogee only through the most tortuous outburst of the composer’s output. In the interweaving of anxiety and fantasy prior to its seismic closing bars, the finale offered no resolution in music whose emotional nakedness is testament to an era when the making of such a statement still seemed to matter. A gripping performance and the interpretative highlight of the cycle.

The Eighth Symphony (1978) saw Penny joined by the East Riding Youth Orchestra in a reading which itself reflected the overall obliqueness of the work in question. Certainly there was no lack of focus in an opening movement whose brusque interplay of march-driven themes affords the music a tough yet wholly unfulfilled persona, complemented in the slow movement by a haunted quality in which the fractured string writing is at least offset by the calming aura of harp and tuned percussion into which it retreats. Stranger still is a finale whose blithe main theme – no two recurrences of which feel quite the same – alternates with episodes of an increasing introspection prior to the dismissive shrug at the close. If the string players struggled with some of the exposed writing in the work’s latter stages, this was still a perceptive account of music which seems to teeter on the brink in more than autobiographical terms alone. For this reason, it is never less than intriguing.

As, of course, is the Ninth Symphony (1986) – though whether this emerged less through the need to make a coherent musical statement as out of psychological necessity is unanswerable. Joined by the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra (aka the Worthing Symphony Orchestra), John Gibbons secured some of the best playing of the weekend but the performance itself left much to be desired. The first movement began well enough, though too fast an overall tempo made the rhetorical coda overly portentous. Most successful was its intermezzo-like successor, its melody wistfully repeated over the orchestra, and then the scherzo largely conveyed the fragmented gestures into which its initial energy soon dissipates. The finale was the real failing: Arnold’s only slow such movement needs far greater space for its spans of near-silence to yield meaningful expression yet, by merely skimming the surface, Gibbons rendered it inconsequential and its final chord gratuitous rather than cathartic.

A disappointing way, then, to round off the cycle, though such a failing has to be placed in the context of the festival as a whole – one that confirmed the individuality and the durability of Arnold’s symphonic thinking, along with his innate ability to provide a challenge to musicians whereby they are encouraged to reach beyond themselves rather than allowed to retreat into a spurious comfort zone. Whatever their unevenness, Arnold’s symphonies not merely withstand but positively invite the intensive listening such as was made possible this weekend. Will the cycle be given again for his centenary in 2021? Hopefully, as this music amply deserves it.

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