, August 2007
Whereas most of us, like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, have measured out our lives with coffee spoons, a gifted few can look back over a lifetime of artistic creativity. Malcolm Arnold was one of the latter and this current set catalogues his symphonic output over the greater part of his creative life, with all its ups and downs, from 1949 to 1986. To be able in his last decade to set the seal on this achievement by being present at a complete series of recordings of those symphonies at a time when he was largely disregarded by the establishment seems a fitting conclusion.
The individual discs proudly bear the logo ‘Recorded in the presence of the composer’, endorsed with a facsimile of Arnold’s signature. To have seen another complete set, under the batons of Richard Hickox and Rumon Gamba, being issued disc by disc at the same time by Chandos must have added the icing on the cake. Even now, apart from these Naxos and Chandos recordings, Arnold is absurdly neglected: in the year following his death we could, surely, have had more of his music at the Proms than the brief extracts from his film music in Prom 2 – and even then the announcer got his name wrong, referring to him as ‘Matthew Arnold’!
Reviewing the final disc in the series in August 2001, that containing Symphonies Nos.7 and 8, Rob Barnett predicted that Naxos would issue the complete set and he was proved correct within months – an 80th-birthday tribute to the composer. This second reissue as a complete set with a new catalogue number, therefore, seems odd but it gives Naxos the opportunity to mark the death of Arnold in 2006: the individual CDs retain their individual formats and the information ‘b.1921’; only the cardboard slipcase records Arnold’s death. The collection is not quite complete in that it lacks the Symphony for Strings Op.13 and the Symphony for Brass Instruments Op.123, both of which are included on a rival Decca 5-CD compilation (‘The Malcolm Arnold Edition: The Eleven Symphonies’, 476 5337, conducted by Vernon Handley and selling for only slightly more than the Naxos set.) These Handley performances were very well received in their original Conifer incarnations (see Symphonies 7 and 8 below.)
I have mentioned Arnold’s comparative neglect and I must admit to having myself had a lopsided view of his output until I listened to these complete symphonies. His film music, of course, is well known - though how many people who admire the music for The Bridge on the River Kwai actually associate it with Arnold? - as are his English, Scottish, Cornish, Irish and Welsh Dances – very well served, incidentally, by Naxos and Andrew Penny again, this time with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, on 8.553526. Apart from Arnold’s own excellent Everest recording of the Third Symphony, an Everest recording released long ago by World Record Club, I knew well only the Second and Fifth Symphonies, very well directed by Charles Groves (2) and by Arnold himself (5) and well recorded, coupled with the Peterloo Overture. These recordings have recently been reissued by EMI on a 2-CD set where they are joined by the First Symphony, the Concerto for Two Pianos and Tam o’Shanter and the Groves Second Symphony replaced with Arnold’s own mono recording (‘Arnold conducts Arnold’, 3 82146 2, reviewed and recommended on Musicweb in April 2007). Though this inexpensive EMI set offers a good next step for those who want to move beyond the popular Dances, it does not tell the whole symphonic story – a story which I am now coming to think almost the equal of that contained in Vaughan Williams’ symphonic cycle. Just to complicate matters, I have recently been listening to the Chandos/Hickox cycle of Rubbra’s symphonies and come to have a high regard for them, too.
From the very opening of the First Symphony, written at the age of 27, the music is unmistakably Arnold. There are surprisingly few echoes of Vaughan Williams or Walton apart, perhaps, from reminders of RVW’s Seventh Symphony, the Antartica: the slow movement of Arnold’s First Symphony is reminiscent of the bleak Antarctic landscapes of the film for which VW’s Antartica was originally composed. In this movement I hear less of the “gentle and meditative” and more of the “shattering of the calm” – and it is, for me, an ominous calm, anyway – than Keith Anderson’s notes imply. There are occasional hints of Mahler, as in the march in the Finale of the First Symphony. Arnold knew Mahler’s early symphonies as an orchestral trumpet player under van Beinum, but it seems to me that the Mahler analogy has been overstated in some quarters.
An interview which Ateş Orga conducted with Arnold in 1997, forming the basis for the notes accompanying the Third and Fourth Symphonies, casts further light on the subject, especially the statement that “I don’t see the symphony like Mahler.” Arnold’s claim never to have been influenced by anyone, other than “outwardly” by his friend Walton, and his expression of dislike for Wagner and the symphonies of Elgar are more illuminating than his contradictory claim, elsewhere, to have been influenced by Berlioz, not an influence which I recognise in the symphonies. The Concise Grove’s cryptic “owing something to Walton and Sibelius” is true only if we take “something” to mean very little.
In the First Symphony, as throughout his symphonic output, serious passages – wistful, thoughtful and painful – alternate with moments of playfulness. The high seriousness frequently punctuates the playful passages and vice-versa. Keith Anderson’s notes remind us that Arnold has been compared with Dickens, an apt comparison since Dickens cannot resist making fun of even his blackest villains. Pursuing the analogy, Arnold’s humour can sometimes seem as grotesque as Dickens’ and his more portentous moments, such as that at the end of the first movement of the First Symphony, are the equivalent of Dickens’ purple prose passages – the famous death of Little Nell and the less well-known but equally hyped death of Joe the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House.
Much the same mix is apparent in the Second Symphony though in this work, commissioned by Charles Groves for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, whose recording was until recently available on EMI, the balance is slightly more in favour of the playful over the portentous: the slow movement does end in calm resolution and optimism seems to win the contest despite some stormy competition at the end of the Finale, all of which is well captured in this recording. If any of Arnold’s symphonies may be described as popular, it would be this and the Fifth.
When the CD containing the first two symphonies appeared, it was inevitably compared with the Chandos version of the same coupling with the LSO under Richard Hickox, recorded a year earlier. At that time there was still an element of snobbery in some reviewers’ approach to Naxos CDs – they had at first been available only in Woolworth’s stores and the earliest issues had been with little-known orchestras – but the CD of the Dances had already made Andrew Penny’s reputation as an Arnold interpreter. Could the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland possibly rival the London Symphony? In the event, there are tiny details where the LSO scores but, heard on their own, these are undeniably very effective performances, with no noticeable lack of power in the playing or recording, and this holds good for the rest of the series.
The greatest difference between the Naxos and Chandos versions of these symphonies is to be found in the tempi adopted for the slow movements, the Andantino second movement of the First (8:39 from Penny against 10:04 from Hickox) and the Lento third movement of the Second (9:56 from Penny against 13:51 from Hickox). Some reviewers found the slower tempi of Hickox more effective in these movements but Arnold himself had been present at the Naxos recording sessions and, while there was no sense in which he had sanctioned the results, Penny had apparently discussed such matters as tempi with him. In the Lento of Symphony No.2, Groves’ EMI recording lies between the two at 11:00. If there is anything in it at all, the Groves version perhaps makes the music a little more approachable.
The bright opening of the Third Symphony sets the tone for a very approachable work which is surprisingly not well known. The notes by Ateş Orga make a welcome change, since they avoid the repetition of the potted biography by Keith Anderson at the beginning of the notes in the other booklets. In the interview which forms the basis of these notes Arnold refers to Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony and it is certainly possible to hear echoes of this in the second movement, though with far less bleakness and desolation than in the Finn’s bleakest symphony. The Finale, as so often in these symphonies, could easily have belonged to one of the sets of Dances. Both this symphony and the very enjoyable Fourth, with Caribbean and Latin-American elements in its scoring, receive very fine performances and recording. Those not wishing to purchase the whole set but willing to experiment with Arnold might well find this CD (8.553739) the most approachable single disc. The French and German notes to this CD are for once not mere translations of the English but independent essays based on the Orga-Arnold interview.
In the Fifth Symphony the discrepancies of tempo between Penny, Hickox and Arnold himself are less marked than in the Second: even the second movement, Andante con moto, though it perhaps receives a little more of the moto from Penny (10:54), is only a little faster than Hickox (11:24) or Arnold himself (11:25) – once again, one assumes that he had some influence on Penny’s faster tempo. Some have spoken of the way in which Penny’s tempi in the Second and Fifth symphonies tend to downplay the Mahlerian elements: this may well be the case, but it may also represent Arnold’s own continuing movement away from the Mahler voice. Arnold’s own tempo for the slow movement of the Fifth is more in accord with Penny than Groves’ tempo in the Second. In any case, the ‘big tune’ in the Fifth could never really be mistaken for Mahler: there is too much of Arnold in it for that – just as the ‘yearning’ Tchaikovsky-like tunes in Sibelius’s early symphonies are too individual ever to be mistaken for Tchaikovsky.
The Fifth was regarded as strong meat when it was first performed, though it has since become as well known as the First and Second. Much stronger stuff was to come in the Sixth with which it is paired on the third CD, a pocket-rocket 25-minute work whose gentle opening is immediately punctuated by ominous chords. The slow movement is as bleak as anything Sibelius or Shostakovich produced and the Finale is wonderfully ambiguous: is the end “thrilling and life-asserting” as one critic maintains or “forced [and] inhibited” as another believes? The closest parallel is to be found in Shostakovich, whose ‘patriotic’ big tunes bought him occasional favour with an establishment which was constantly watchful for his ‘formalist’ aberrations, but which seem to have been intended as the greatest poke in the eye for that establishment. Those seeking a single disc on which Arnold’s more approachable and ‘harder’ styles are combined need look no further than this (8.552000). Some have again found the Chandos version (similarly coupled) more revelatory but it is hard to see how this Naxos performance and recording could be much bettered.
Paul Serotsky and Rob Barnett contributed a very detailed two-handed review of Symphonies 7 and 8; it would be superfluous to do anything other than to include a link to that review here except to say that these are very effective performances of some powerful music and to draw attention to the re-availability of the Handley performances referred to in these reviews. (See above for details of the Decca set.) This CD is emphatically not the place to start to get to know Arnold’s symphonies.
The recording of the Ninth Symphony was made soon after that of the first two; Naxos actually took the bold step of issuing the CD containing this difficult work first. Chandos, by contrast, added the last three symphonies almost as an afterthought to their cycle, with a different orchestra and conductor and as a 2-for-1 offer, as if they thought some excuse was needed.
Ninth symphonies tend to be traumatic affairs: Mahler even tried to cheat fate by calling his ‘real’ Ninth Das Lied von der Erde. Beethoven, Mahler and Bruckner all achieved this magic total with more left to say: the sketches for parts of Beethoven’s and Mahler’s Tenths exist: the latter have been very credibly worked on by Deryck Cooke; had Mahler lived, the Tenth might well have been his symphonic masterpiece. Arnold seems to have had no ambition beyond the Ninth: like Sibelius after the Seventh he seems to have said all that he had to say – “I gave up … I have no urge to write … I’ve done enough,” he told Ateş Orga in 1997.
Even this final symphony was long in gestation and, by the time that it was ready, both the BBC who had commissioned it and the publishers Faber did not know what to make of it. It certainly ends his symphonic career not with a bang but a whimper – a 23-minute slow movement almost as long as the other three movements combined. “I rather wanted it to end quietly,” he tells Andrew Penny. There is music which makes an immediate appeal but doesn’t seem to develop with repeated hearings – Balakirev’s First Symphony is a case in point, even in Beecham’s superb recording: I have owned this recording in various incarnations for 45 years and always found it cheering, but never found anything new in it. Sadly the most recent CD incarnation of the EMI version appears to be currently unavailable, though a BBC mono Legends version is available on BBCL40842. The best current recommendation is probably Svetlanov at bargain price on Regis RRC1131. There is also music which does not appeal much on first hearing but which improves with re-acquaintance; I hope and think that Arnold’s Ninth Symphony will belong in this category – I have to admit, however, that I once had high hopes of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in this regard but that this music still has not done much for me: I still unrepentantly dub it the Drearylieder.
Once again it is difficult to imagine a better performance or recording of the Ninth than the Naxos, making the whole set a very worthwhile purchase indeed.
The conversation with musical examples, which concludes this CD, is worth hearing once – Arnold’s quiet tone in the conversation is typically undemonstrative – but is unlikely to invited repeated hearing, any more than did Stravinsky’s commentary in broken English (à propos le Sacre) which originally accompaniedhis own CBS recording of The Rite of Spring, jettisoned in subsequent reissues. The conversation rather destroys the reflective mood at the end of the symphony; surely the final CD could have had a more appealing coupling, such as the Oboe Concerto which Chandos have chosen, but this is a small consideration compared with all my positive comments about this set.