Four Scottish Dances, Op.59
Little Suite No.1, Op.80 Siciliano
Four Cornish Dances, Op.91
Fanfare for Louis
Little Suite No.2, Op.93
Fantasy for Brass Band, Op.114
5 Folk Songs [First performance]
The First Shoot
Christine Buffle (soprano)
Grimethorpe Colliery (UK Coal) Band
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 27 September, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
What, one wonders, happened to the first set of Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances? Billed as the penultimate item, this choice work was replaced, without any mention in the programme book or from the conductor (who had made some spoken comments during the evening), by Arnold’s Little Suite No.2. It’s three movements are ‘typical’ Arnold – skittish and dark, lamenting (somewhat off the emotional compass), and end of the pier. The encore, again unannounced, was the finale of Little Suite No.1. The advertised programme included this work’s bittersweet Siciliano.
This was the third and last of the London Philharmonic’s presentations under the heading of “Malcolm Arnold Celebration” – Tony Palmer’s film, a concert under Vernon Handley, and this showcase for the wonderful skills of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances got the programme off to a vital start; presumably this orchestral original was “arr. Farr” (as on Grimethorpe’s 1993 Conifer recording)? (LPO programmes are a bit short on info; opus numbers, for example.) Each movement was applauded … Howarth carried on conducting and, fortunately, the sections of the next-played piece, Walton’s The First Shoot, arranged for Grimethorpe by the composer in 1980 from a 1935 ballet score, weren’t blighted by clapping: Walton’s vaudeville and buffoonery could be enjoyed without interruption.
Applause returned, bewilderingly, for Elgar Howarth’s 5 Folk Songs. His arrangements, inventive and witty, consummately made, were distracted by Christine Buffle’s facial and vocal exaggerations. She played to the gallery – this was a “Play School” rendition. Had she paid more attention to enunciation and ensemble, then these arrangements might have had more chance. Even the lovely melody of “Waley Waley” was shapeless. Better judged theatrically had come with Fanfare for Louis, the two trumpets playing off-stage Arnold’s tribute to Louis Armstrong.
Arnold’s Cornish Dances, another orchestral work arranged by Ray Farr, was juxtaposed with Gilbert Vinter’s Spectrum. The opening number of the Arnold is a classic with its repeated notes and complex decoration; immaculately balanced here – a hallmark of the concert under Howarth’s decisive conducting. He then led a persuasive account of Gilbert Vinter’s Spectrum, completed shortly before the composer’s death in 1969. Like Arnold, Vinter played in the LPO, as a bassoonist (Arnold was a trumpeter). The 12-minute Spectrum, innovative certainly (in brass band terms) and spectacularly sonic, is not really distinctive until some fateful, lacerating chords emerge just before the end.
The finest music of the evening came with Herbert Howells’s Pageantry, from 1934. Without any fallback on novelty, Howells fashioned a work of great eloquence, with a real sense of structure and culmination: communicative expression and far-reaching harmony fastidiously fused. A great work, one that rather revealed some limitations in Arnold’s armoury; the Fantasy began with yet more roulades of arpeggios. The Fantasy has its moments though, not least in the Elegy, which really grabs one by the throat.
Elgar Howarth was the master of this music: this wonderfully versatile musician (his opera repertoire ranges from Mozart to Birtwistle) was in complete, and discreet, control. And the Band’s playing was marvellous – in unanimity, dynamics, and sheer commitment. What a wonderful sound too: rich, growling, translucent and gleaming – nothing harsh or thudding: a long and demanding programme unflaggingly delivered.