Piano Concerto, Op.44
Symphony No.2, Op.33 (Rufus)
David Owen Norris (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Recorded 19-20 September 2006 in Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2007
CD No: DUTTON EPOCH
Duration: 66 minutes
The interest that Dutton’s series is generating in the music of Richard Arnell is considerable – and fully justified. As Arnell gathers to his 90th-birthday (he was born on 15 September 1917) so Dutton’s releases (this is the third) are well-timed. Already issued is the large-scale Third Symphony (CDLX 7161) and a disc of chamber music (CDLX 7122).
This current release couples two sizeable pieces and begins with the Piano Concerto, written in the United States (where Arnell had become ‘trapped’ when World War II was declared) between 1945 and 1946. First performed by Vera Brodsky then taken up by Moura Lympany (in Carnegie Hall) and Ross Pratt (who gave several performances in London up to 1957) it seems that the work has languished since then until the interest now shown in it by David Owen Norris. Such neglect is difficult to understand.
The first movement is optimistic, witty and whimsical; stylistically there is likeness to Prokofiev and to Hindemith (or in the latter example, to English ears, Rawsthorne) and the ideas are strong and memorable; the twists and turns that the music takes are engagingly unpredictable and wholly personal. Cast in three movements the first and longest swaggers with confidence (maybe mirroring end-of-war high spirits) and with gentle insouciance; between 13’58”-14’00” does Arnell consciously allude to the American National Anthem? The second movement is quite lonely, suggesting to this listener the sea and, specifically, a convoy of ships navigating a cold ocean (Arnell is also a noted film-music composer). The finale is spirited and light-hearted until a reflective interlude (cadenza) from which the pace develops to a barnstorming and emphatic conclusion.
The Second Symphony is from slightly earlier; it was composed in 1942 and revised two years later. It is dedicated to Aldous Huxley. ‘Rufus’ was Arnell’s pseudonym when he entered this work into a competition. Effectively this is Arnell’s first symphony and had to wait (despite being programmed in Seattle and discussed for performance in New York – musicians’ strikes put paid to such plans) until 1988 when Sir Edward Downes conducted the very belated premiere in Manchester. It’s a concise and troubled work, although not lacking optimism, the first movement being economic, lucid and distinctive, the build-up to the exhilarating coda being especially effective. The three-movement design, the middle one being the longest, reminds of Dvořák’s Third Symphony. The central one of Arnell’s triptych is more inward and reflective although the pulse of march-rhythms keeps this extended movement active; it is always expressive and has a slow-burn to an intense and tragic climax that needs such an underlying sense of direction. Arnell’s achievement is finely sustained. The finale opens in similar ‘mood’ with long string lines before mercurial material holds sway and a sense of well-being is established, albeit there are ‘attacking’ gestures and the coda is decidedly ambiguous.
These powerful and vital pieces are given excellent performances and recording, and it is to be hoped that all seven of Arnell’s symphonies are being recorded.