English Dances Set 1, Op.27 and Set 2, Op.33
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves
Serenade for small orchestra
Bournemouth Sinfonietta conducted by Ronald Thomas
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Neville Dilkes
Four Cornish Dances
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: November 2001
CD No: EMI CDZ 5 74780 2
This is a thoroughly enjoyable, well recorded and mastered compilation of Malcolm Arnold in lighter mode. The English Dances are marvellous pieces, memorably tuneful and colourfully orchestrated; more than that they are personal, not lifted from a book of collected folksongs, but invented in the spirit of the title and the character of the composer to wholly winning effect. Sir Adrian Boult’s classic recording (recently reissued by Decca, 468 803-2, and reviewed for The Classical Source by David Wordsworth) remains a touchstone interpretation. Sir Charles runs Sir Adrian a very close second. Groves was a great champion of Arnold; this 1976 recording is testimony to Groves’s affection for the music – tender and exuberant as required, detail touched in with a smile.
Remaining on the South Coast, the BSO’s sister-ensemble does a fine job with the delightful Serenade. English in its pastoral expression, and in its nostalgia, dare one invoke, especially for those who treat Arnold with disdain, the name of Stravinsky? The first movement with its plangent wind solos and rhythmic guile certainly suggests the same fluency. Sinfonietta No.3 is similarly sympathetic to the small-orchestra medium, the first movement’s astringent harmonies might surprise – a characteristic knife-edge balance between yearning and fear omnipresent: the man is in his music. The earlier Sinfoniettas are again a feast of inventiveness and memorable ideas, sensitively and spiritedly realised by members of the Philharmonia under Neville Dilkes who clearly relishes every bar, not least the dashing finales. Sir Malcolm himself directs the Cornish Dances, another set of pure-pleasure pieces, especially the first, an uplifting mix of syncopation and rhythmic interplay.
As one of the twentieth century’s great tunesmiths, and so much more, one wonders just why Arnold seems out on a limb. Perhaps he’s too versatile? Writing as someone who loathes the musical soft option, the contrived listener-friendly ’wonder’ with a shelf-life of five minutes, and who holds, say, Berio, Birtwistle, Boulez and Carter in such high esteem, I don’t know why Arnold seems to a ’problem’ for some listeners.
Arnold’s music always gives delight in its sheer craft and ideas – a Haydnesque creativity; his scoring is fantastic, and there’s a real communicative heart at work. If this CD presents a lighter Arnold, there are also shadows that remind of his troubled life. It is, I think, Arnold’s sharing of joy and sorrow that makes him so listenable – and those indelible tunes. For all the many purely musical pleasures, there’s also the significant factor of being in the company of a much-lived and -experienced man, one with a great musical sense of humour, with whom we feel empathy.