Arnold: 80th Birthday Concerts – Wigmore Hall

23 October 2001

Violin Sonata No.2, Op.43
Songs from Kensington Gardens [World premiere]
The Good-morrow, Op.114
Two Songs, Op.8
Viola Sonata, Op.17
Piano Trio, Op.54
Divertimento for wind trio, Op.37
Flute Sonata, Op.121
Duo for two cellos, Op.85
Suite from Hobson’s Choice (arr. Hogan)

25 October 2001

Three Shanties for wind quintet, Op.4
Oboe Sonatina, Op.28
Waltz from Suite Bourgeoise
Fantasy for oboe, Op.90
String Quartet No.2, Op.118
Fanfare for Louis
Clarinet Sonatina, Op.29
Fantasy for clarinet, Op. 87
Grand Fantasia Op.973 [London premiere]
Fantasy for flute, Op.89
Brass Quintet, Op.73

Various artists as detailed in text

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 October, 2001
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

’In from the cold’ though he supposedly now is, the popular side of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s output has never really fallen from favour, while the absence of a single professional performance of any of his nine symphonies in London during his 80th birthday year says much about his wider standing. So it was good that the Wigmore Hall devoted two evenings to his chamber music, devised by pianist Richard Shaw, and given by performers whose contribution, technically and interpretatively, was uniformly excellent.

With one notable exception, the works performed typified Arnold’s chamber music – small-scale, intimate, but not necessarily lightweight. Hence the Second Violin Sonata (1953), whose closely-argued, one-movement journey from amiability to resignation is with deftness and understatement – qualities uppermost in Madeleine Mitchell’s perceptive account with Richard Shaw.

Of especial interest were the songs – not a genre with which Arnold is associated, though the selection from the Kensington Gardens cycle (1938) shows the teenage composer at ease with Humbert Woolfe’s emotionally taciturn verse. Two Songs after Mai Sheng (1947) are bolder in distributing their ideas between singer and piano, while The Good-morrow (1974) sets John Donne’s ecstatic rhetoric in powerful and moving terms. Ian Partridge, his lyric tenor sounding well in his 64th year, sang the selection with musicianly conviction.

Roger Chase had the measure of the Viola Sonata (1947), its tonal astringency and quixotic changes of mood confirming that, from the outset, Arnold’s directness was not about making concessions to performer or listener. The Piano Trio (1956), with its heartfelt ’Andante’ and resolute ’Finale’, sums up his music at a time when it flowed unabated; cellist Paul Watkins joining Mitchell and Shaw in a performance of vibrant contrasts. Equally appealing is the Divertimento (1952), a sequence of piquant vignettes for flute, oboe and clarinet, incisively played by Ensemble Lumiere, and revealing Arnold in the guise of an ’English Jean Françaix’.

The Flute Sonata (1977) is altogether tougher, its unstinting virtuosity (written with James Galway in mind) allied to a disruptive formal approach – even in the teasing wistfulness of the ’Andantino’. Karen Jones rose to the occasion, not least by ensuring that technical display never inhibited an emotional response. Louisa Tuck joined Watkins in the pithy dialogue of the Duo for Two Cellos (1965), before the concert ended with Leslie Hogan’s piano trio arrangement of the suite from Arnold’s score to David Lean’s “Hobson’s Choice” (1953) – robust and evocative of its setting, and a reminder of the composer’s seminal widescreen contribution.

The second evening opened with the early and perennial Three Shanties (1943), Arnold’s affectionate debunking of sea shanties and a benchmark for his future composition, dispatched with suitably wry characterisation by the Galliard Ensemble. Nicholas Daniel brought finely-judged tonal shading to the Oboe Sonatina (1952), with its plangent central ’Andante’, then was joined by Shaw and Sebastian Bell in the catchy ’Waltz’ from the early Suite Bourgeoise (1940), before taking solo spot in the liquid virtuosity of the Oboe Fantasy (1966) – one of a group of test pieces with proven durability. Trumpeters Mark Law and Daniel Newell made light of the stamina required in the Fanfare for Louis (1970), a tribute to the jazz great – Armstrong – who set the teenage Arnold on his way as a musician.

The skirling wit and charm of the Clarinet Sonatina (1951) was well conveyed by Barnaby Robson, allowed a more ruminative solo in the Clarinet Fantasy (1966). Bell was equally at home in the capriciousness of the Flute Fantasy (1966), having previously played the ’straight man’ to Law’s keen showmanship in the Grand Fantasia Op.973 (1940), a teenage skit worth reviving for this occasion. London City Brass Quintet closed the evening with the Brass Quintet (1961) a tautly-argued display of instrumental prowess such as few musicians would have mustered forty years ago.

Yet the undoubted highlight was the Second String Quartet (1975), a near-masterpiece from Arnold’s troubled Irish years. The high-flown eloquence and grim vigour of the opening ’Allegro’ is compounded by the brutal dance motion of the ’Scherzo’ and brooding unease of the ’Andante’, before the divisive mood-swings of the ’Finale’ offer only temporary resolution. At nearly half-an-hour, this is a substantial piece with an emotional depth to match, and the Maggini Quartet’s disciplined yet responsive rendering confirmed that it deserves much wider exposure.

Indeed, as the ailing composer gamely accepted a Fellowship of the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, and laconically acknowledged birthday greetings, the feeling that his contribution as a composer of substance has been undervalued, or rather misunderstood, was an overriding impression; the other being the significance of his chamber output in motivating a level of musicianship such as was amply in evidence over the course of these 80th birthday concerts.

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