Kensington Symphony Orchestra – Malcolm Arnold & Gustav Mahler

Arnold
Symphony No.2
Mahler
Symphony No.1

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable


Reviewed by: Patrick Kelly

Reviewed: 28 November, 2006
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

This concert was originally planned as an 85th-birthday tribute to Sir Malcolm Arnold, who has been the Grand Old Man of British music for some time. Alas Sir Malcolm passed away four weeks before his birthday in October so, instead, the concert was a tribute event to a composer described in the programme as one “one of the most prolific and best-loved of its native composers of the 20th century.”

It would have been easy to play one of the many works by Arnold that have indeed confirmed the label “one of the best-loved composers”; pieces such as the Dances or the concert overtures. Instead Russell Keable grasped the nettle and chose one of the nine symphonies, a brave decision particularly when placing it alongside one of Arnold’s idols, Gustav Mahler.

Arnold the symphonist is chronically neglected in our concert halls and has not made an appearance at the Proms for many, many years. Our orchestras and the Proms management are either worried for the box office or suspicious of the quality of the music or both! Hearing Symphony No.2 shows such misgivings as being comprehensively misplaced. St John’s was nearly full and the symphony shows Arnold’s intellectual capabilities in full flow.

Recovering form the almost chronic darkness of its predecessor, the Second opens with a lyrical, almost pastoral, theme that beguiles the listener throughout the first movement. With the use of antiphonal violins, Keable showed the effectiveness of Arnold’s string writing to the greatest extent with the polyphonic and harmonic relationships clearly established. Indeed this glorious opening movement puts to rest the accusation that Arnold could not write a convincing symphonic statement (much as Shostakovich, another Arnold idol, set out to prove his own abilities in the opening movement of his own Tenth Symphony).

Arnold’s Second proceeds with a typical high-jinx scherzo, full of ebullience and good humour, very much in the style of Beckus the Dandipratt, followed by a deeply felt Lento that moves inexorably towards a Mahlerian funeral oration of grandiloquent power that avoids pastiche and hubris. Then the senses are jolted by a throwaway finale which, to the uninitiated must be rather hard to accept after the sorrow and pain heard just previously. But Haydn had the habit of doing this, particularly in his middle-period symphonies, so why shouldn’t a contemporary (post-war) composer attempt to do the same? This is a stylist trait shared with Shostakovich, who adds more of a sardonic element.

Some people use this finale as convincing proof of Arnold’s fundamental lack of taste, decrying the superficial nature of the music after the depth heard earlier. However the second subject, which emerges in an unforced manner worthy of Sibelius, adds ballast to the essentially lightweight first theme and the coda explodes into an affirmation statement dressed up in orchestral colours worthy of Respighi.

The orchestra did not put a foot (or note) wrong and Keable mastered the sometimes-bewildering changes in the musical flow (very much an Arnold trademark) with an unforced naturalness that allowed the music to make its full mark. Many influences are present (as mentioned) but Arnold welds these different sounds into his own sonority that establishes his individuality. The standard of playing and the interpretative skill on display puts Arnold’s Second Symphony high in the pantheon of post-war British symphonic statements. The seven symphonies that followed each explore further areas of human frailty in varying degrees but the Second deserves its own special place in the sun and should be rehabilitated in our concert halls forthwith.

Mahler, the master orchestrator (the very least of his qualities) actually proved more troublesome to the generally high standards of playing of the KSO. Keable shaped the long opening movement with patience and a sense of the inevitable but the musical corners, the sudden changes of orchestral sonority, sometimes caught out sections of the orchestra, making for some uncomfortable listening.

Perhaps the demands made by Mahler require only the finest professional orchestras with their often-sleek playing skills. But I would rather have the heartfelt playing of the KSO than the superficial auto-pilot often heard elsewhere. Keable channelled such emotions that run through this highly successful First Symphony (more natural in style than the equivalents by Brahms, Elgar and Sibelius) with conspicuous success. The final affirmation sounded for once sincere after the darkness of the funeral march.

Just as Arnold conjures up temperamental difficulties with certain musicians it can equally be levelled at Mahler that his finales are rambling and repetitive. With care and affection on the part of the conductor and players such worries can be set aside. Keable and the KSO, with their genuine desire to display the truth behind the notes, produced a convincing experience, much appreciated by the orchestra’s loyal followers in the audience who are rarely let down either by the orchestra’s repertoire or standard of performance.



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