Six Overtures, Op.8
Macbeth Incidental Music
Polly (Opera) Overture
Recorded 5-8 January 2004 in Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: April 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557484
Duration: 76 minutes
A good idea of Samuel Arnold’s style can be gleaned from the six three-movement overtures. Since William Boyce, a close contemporary of Arnold (1740-1802), was famous at the same time, and also wrote a noted set of symphonies similar in form to these overtures it would be tempting to expect a similar type of music. The style of Boyce, however, reflects that of Baroque composers – particularly Handel – while Arnold is reaching towards the later 18th-century European style: J.C. Bach (the ‘English’ Bach) has far more in common with Arnold than does Boyce.
Arnold’s overtures were published in 1771: 20 years later than the Boyce works. Arnold has a flowing style and his brand of originality is perhaps more evident to academic musicians than to the public at large who might be forgiven for overlooking the subtle swerves of key. Arnold’s orchestration is fairly conventional – oboes often double violins and the wind group is sometimes used only as a cushion to string melodies, but there are times when he becomes adventurous – the finale of the G major Overture is a case in point with oboes playing jolly melodies and horns in G exploiting their upper register in ‘hunting’ mode.
Kevin Mallon is so expert in this period of music that I am left wondering why, in the opening Overture, he should choose to have the B flat horns play in the basso range. This is untypical of the period and the unadventurous wind-writing is made to sound murky as a result.
There is little else to complain about, however, and the delightful and fascinating incidental music to “Macbeth” is played with remarkable sprightliness. This is music full of surprises, drawing copiously on Scottish folk melodies. Any listeners familiar with Scottish dances might be surprised to hear familiar tunes in full orchestral garb – a strange conjunction as if, at the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society’s annual ball, the orchestra from the court at Mannheim had been asked to play. The opening and closing marches are for full band – including snare drum – the final piece being an arrangement of Purcell’s England Strikes Home. Throughout this eight-movement suite, Mallon is careful to keep the ‘Scotch-snap’ rhythms very pointed. Nothing could be more ‘Scottish’ than the fourth item, ‘The Braes of Ballenden’, in which Arnold has a bold, lyrical melody on oboes above a continuous drone bass, giving a sound delightfully close to that of the bagpipes.
“Polly”, from 1728, is the sequel to John Gay’s ever-popular “The Beggar’s Opera”. Around fifty years on, Johann Christoph Pepusch’s score for “Polly” was still familiar to all and sundry. Although the music is usually credited to Pepusch he probably composed not much more than the overture, the remainder being mostly popular tunes of the time plus a hint of Purcell all arranged by Gay. It was known at the time as “the score that one whistles going into the theatre”. So the 1777 revival of “Polly” finds Samuel Arnold constructing a new overture by using no less that thirteen tunes from “The Beggar’s Opera”. Robert Hoskins (editor of all the scores played on this disc) clarifies this admirably in his informative booklet note. I do have a score of the “The Beggar’s Opera” but I still found it difficult to identify each item precisely – Arnold takes a fair amount of liberty with the tunes. This is a very clever musical construction, melodies in different style and varying rhythm run seamlessly together – the combination of tunefulness and familiarity must have been a huge success with audiences of the day.
Summing up, if the six overtures are not undiscovered treasures they are very pleasing and the theatre music is ear-catching throughout. The sparkling playing and stylish conducting should encourage investigation of this attractive (and inexpensive) reminder of the English 18th-century musical scene.