Arnold 80th Birthday Concert – 22nd October

Photograph of Rumon Gamba

Overture – Tam O’Shanter
Symphony No.6
Four Scottish Dances
Symphony No.5

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 22 October, 2001
Venue: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Having played all of Malcolm Arnold’s symphonies for BBC broadcast, numbers 7-9 issued by Chandos, the BBC Philharmonic now has this music in its blood. Rumon Gamba certainly has – what a marvellous conductor! Having not heard him live before I certainly wasn’t prepared for the intensity and virtuosity of these performances. He managed to navigate the orchestra around the complex extremes of these symphonies in a quite remarkable way – the end of No.5 was shattering – whilst gently and respectfully sending up the lighter Arnold of the Scottish Dances. The BBC Philharmonic in turn gave their all – wonderful ensemble playing, gleaming, bright solos, and a commitment and obvious enjoyment that, frankly, puts most other British orchestras to shame.

Tam O’Shanter is one of Arnold’s most popular works – graphically programmatic, from a slithering trombone describing Tam staggering out of the ’local’, to violins and a whip portraying the chase through the woods. Listening to it again, quite apart from the wit and formidable orchestral virtuosity, the level of dissonance for a work by an English composer written in 1955 really makes one sit up ands take notice – so much for Arnold being out of date!

The festival organised at the RNCM to celebrate Arnold had the title “A Gesture of Friendship” – this stems from a comment made by the composer on the importance of communicating with his audience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sets of national Dances that have become a regular part of the repertoire. The Scottish Dances from 1957 are brilliantly scored, full of memorable tunes, and end in an outrageous, over-the-top Highland reel; the orchestra had as much fun as the audience.

The symphonies show a darker side to Arnold’s character. The rarely performed Sixth is as tightly organised as any; the first movement shows a vigorous working out of material stated at the beginning – a series of cascading woodwind figures and a jazzy walking bass line. The moods are many and varied, changing from page to page; Gamba was firmly in control and alive to every nuance. The following sombre ’Lento’ paves the way for a last movement that out-John Williams John Williams – at least it would have done had it been written twenty years later (!) – a real concerto for orchestra.

After the concert I told Arnold that the Fifth is probably my favourite. “Whose? Mahler’s?” was his disarming reply. It is a truly remarkable work written in memory of four of Arnold’s friends who had died too young – the musicians Dennis Brain, Gerard Hoffnung and Frederick Thurston, and the dancer David Paltenghi. The distraught composer pours every last drop of anger, bitterness, despair and sadness into thirty minutes. At the close there was an audible gasp – the triumphal ending torn away by a bleak minor chord and tolling bells. Ironically enough it was this work that saw the beginning of the down-turn in Arnold’s fortunes – the cruelty and hostility of the critics’ response playing a large part in sending a deeply hurt composer into years of physical and mental collapse. This performance was quite superb. I don’t ever recall hearing it played so aggressively, the strings especially digging-in as if their lives depended on it. It is aggressive music, of huge emotional depth and character, brought to life in a way that both took one’s breath away and makes one wonder how it is possible for this music not to be as familiar as Shostakovich has become.

The increasingly frail but determined Sir Malcolm was helped onto the platform to acknowledge a standing ovation – complete with whistles and cheers – there cannot be many living composers that would now have such a reception, birthday or no birthday.

The evening was not quite over. Rumon Gamba led the orchestra in an encore performance of The Padstow Lifeboat, a marvellously unsubtle march originally written for brassband that uses every cliché in the book but still manages to be pure Arnold. Even the composer sat open-mouthed as we heard the notes of ’Happy Birthday’ incorporated into the closing pages.

Quite simply one of the most memorable nights I have spent in a concert hall for some time.

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