Malcolm Arnold 85th-Birthday Tribute

Peterloo Overture
The Smoke
Cornish Dances
Bridge on the River Kwai – March
Tam O’Shanter
Symphony No.5, Op.74

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra
Michael Lloyd

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 19 February, 2006
Venue: Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire

Now in his 85th year, Sir Malcolm Arnold remains a contradiction in British music. A composer with a vast output, his biggest and best concert works remain largely ignored by the professional orchestras, whereas they have always been supported by the myriad of our excellent amateur and youth orchestras. His nine symphonies comprise the core of his achievement. Composed over the last half of the 20th century they form a satisfying, if not unique, accomplishment in the history of the British symphony since Elgar.

Arnold has not achieved the overall performance exposure of Britten, or even Tippett, but, taken in the round, his music receives more performances than that of his post-war contemporaries – due, no doubt, to it being accessible repertoire. It is thanks to amateur orchestras of the quality of the Birmingham Philharmonic that audiences can gauge the diversity and quality of Arnold’s output.

Sir malcolm Arnold is the Birmingham Philharmonic’s Patron and, as a thank-you for his services to British music and to this orchestra in particular, Michael Lloyd choose a cross-section of Arnold’s orchestral works.

Peterloo remains a frequently played work due to its vivid depiction of a near-revolutionary incident that occurred in Manchester in 1819. The style is similar to occasional works by Shostakovich and tells of noble suffering and moral victory through the use of the brilliant orchestration that comes so easily to Arnold.

The Smoke Overture is a rarity, although its neglect is not due to any lack of orchestral effect. The title is slang for London and the music depicts both the hustle and bustle and occasional tranquility of the capital city. Here, as often in Arnold’s music, there is an anarchic element, which, in style, is reminiscent of Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony finale. The Smoke received an excellent performance and deserves a higher profile.

Next came a side of Arnold that remains his most popular. The Cornish Dances provide catchy tunes and colorful orchestral effects that have undermined his claim to be taken seriously by people who cannot equate such melodic gifts with a writer of symphonies. The Dances, and the March from the Oscar-winning music he wrote for “Bridge on the River Kwai”, received suitably ebullient performances although, strangely, the generally secure brass section had some off moments in the film extract. Tam O’Shanter, is Arnold at his finest in terms of story-telling, a world of rich imagination that never outstays its welcome; Arnold has not received due praise for his conciseness.

To his credit, Lloyd included a symphony. The Fifth remains the most popular of the nine. Unlike his contemporaries in tackling this forbidding form, Arnold composes in a fashion that allows his listeners to be drawn into the musical dialogue in a way that clearly reveals his extra-musical intentions.

The Fifth contains a core of elegiac sadness but has a genuine contrast of thematic ideas and the necessary organic cohesion to be a legitimate symphony. The meltingly soft melody in the slow movement, which Arnold himself described as “sentimental”, is merely a reaction to the rigours and upheavals heard in the first. The scherzo begins with an idea that reminds the listener of a scratch on an LP causing the music to be heard over and over again. The anarchic streak in Arnold’s make-up comes to the fore here, although the trio has one of his most felicitous inventions, a tune that lodges permanently in the mind. The finale begins with a jaunty march but is quickly undermined and the end brings back the slow movement melody in a grandiloquent gesture before subsiding to a gentle tolling of the bell and a dying fall on the double basses. It is one of Arnold’s most haunting closures.

The Fifth Symphony is surely one of the finest of all post-war symphonies and not only from Great Britain. It displays a range of emotions and a tensile strength that places it on a par with Walton’s First – in some respects it wears its symphonic garb more naturally.

Lloyd guided the orchestra into giving a strongly felt and brilliantly executed performance that allowed the qualities of this fine work to be fully appreciated and generated the feeling that the concert-world deserves to hear more-often this serious side to one of our most brilliant and effective composers.

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