Flourish for a 21st Birthday, Op.44
Overture: Beckus the Dandipratt, Op.5
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness Suite (arr. Palmer)
Clarinet Concerto No.2, Op.115
Philharmonic Concerto, Op.120
Symphony No.6, Op.95
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 24 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Given an almost total absence of orchestral performances in London during his 80th birthday year in 2001, it was gratifying that the London Philharmonic should open its 2004/5 season with a concert devoted to the music of Sir Malcolm Arnold. Appropriate, too, as Arnold was principal trumpet of this orchestra between 1943-48: a time when his unequivocal orchestral sound rapidly came into focus. This was also a notable occasion for Vernon Handley, making his first appearance since a serious car accident in Munich last spring. His integral cycle of the Arnold symphonies for Conifer (urgently in need of reissue) evinces an understanding of Arnold’s idiom equalled – and not always surpassed – only by the composer, and a comparable degree of insight was evident throughout this concert.
The concert opened with Flourish for a 21st Birthday, the birthday in question being that of the LPO in 1953. Lively and celebratory yet with a decided harmonic ambiguity at the cadential turn prior to the close, it set a stylistic precedent for all that followed. Or was it merely following in the wake of Beckus the Dandipratt, the overture which launched Arnold’s composing career in 1943 and whose distinctive brand of rhetorical expectancy came through unabated in the present performance.
With some 120 film scores to his credit, Arnold is among the most prolific as well as successful British composers and it was good to see his contribution to the medium represented here. “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958) is among his best-known film scores, and though its scenario of missionaries in China may now seem insufferably passé, the music retains an undeniable appeal. As arranged by Christopher Palmer, the suite proceeds as a theme reflected in varying harmonic contexts – from the energetic determination of ‘London Prelude’, through the sensuous intimacy of ‘Romantic Interlude’, to the triumphal outcome of ‘Happy Ending’, with its march-past on the tune “This Old Man” combining in effortless canonic accord with the main theme.
Arnold’s contribution to the concerto genre alone ought to guarantee his place in the repertoire, and it was interesting that the concert featured two such works from the mid-1970s – a time when Arnold’s music became unequivocally darker as his emotional world collapsed around him. Composed for Benny Goodman, the Second Clarinet Concerto (1974) demonstrates enviable ease in assimilating trad-jazz idioms – witness the rhythmic quirks of the first movement and the uninhibited jive of the finale. Arnold advises the first movement cadenza to be improvised as “way-out as you please” but was here composed by Paul Harris. Between these movements, the Lento ranks among the most probing of Arnold’s slow movements – to which Julian Bliss brought pathos and hushed intensity that belied his years.
Even more unsettling in its wrenching discords and plangent harmonies is the Philharmonic Concerto – a decidedly ambivalent contribution for the LPO’s tour of America in 1976. The outer movements have an undeniable gritty sense of affirmation (Arnold’s occasional but effective recourse to serial technique being much in evidence), while the central Andantino finds a rapt expressiveness in solo strings and woodwind that would not be out of place in late Shostakovich.
Arnold’s nine symphonies are undoubtedly at the heart of his output. The Sixth Symphony (1967) was a good choice, in that it represents a coming-together of so many of Arnold’s formal and expressive preoccupations. Jazz idioms again make their presence felt, notably in the ‘be-bop’-influenced melodic lines and ‘walking base’ of the first two movements, and the distinctly surreal dance-band interlude in the Mahlerian elegy-cum-funeral march of the central Lento: a quixotic amalgam which Handley has down to a tee. Moreover, the finale was a fraction weightier than on his recording, ensuring that its combination of exuberance and edginess made for a close which was pointedly equivocal rather than, as can often seem the case with Arnold’s finales, merely provisional.
So, a varied and inclusive overview of Arnold’s orchestral music – sympathetically played and authoritatively conducted. It was well received by a gratifyingly sizeable house – such as one hopes will convey itself ‘on air’ to the composer, who was unable to be present. Well done the London Philharmonic for showing such initiative. Hopefully this will not be the last such concert to take place during Arnold’s lifetime.