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Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, April 2012

This CD belongs to yet another Naxos series, “British Piano Concertos.” I have the 3-hand concerto in both the Sellick/Smith recording (with Arnold conducting) on EMI, and Markham & Nettle with Vernon Handley on Conifer (actually, ArkivCD reissue). This stacks up very, very well against both, and it costs less than either. The performances are all quite exciting as well as thoughtful, and with Naxos you get the Field Fantasy and the Piano-Duet concerto as well (again, both available on more expensive ArkivCDs). Phillip Dyson and Kevin Sargent make beautiful music together, and Dyson penetrates the depths of the Fantasy. However, the glory of the CD lies in the collaboration among soloists, orchestra and conductor. Highly recommended. © 2012 Classical Net Read complete review

Robert R. Reilly, May 2009

Naxos has a new recording of Malcolm Arnold’s delightful Concerto for Two Pianos, Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings, Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, and Overture: Beckus the Dandipratt. I cannot think of more agreeable summer listening. In one movement or even moment, the music is piercingly lovely (the first concerto’s exquisite Andante con moto), in the next raucous; the priceless element of fancy and play in this most mercurial music is pervasive. It is a riot of humor and whimsy, with interjections of sudden, wild drama. I love it.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

The works of Sir Malcolm Arnold regularly reflect in a moving way the strong vein of popular inspiration and—in complete contrast—the vein of total darkness which reflects Arnold’s deeply depressive side and which at times had him consigned to psychiatric hospitals. The longest of the concertante works is the Fantasy on a theme of one of John Field’s Nocturnes. This is in effect a set of variations, which for the most part are dark; but, as a totally contrasted conclusion, the piece ends with a Rachmaninov-like passages of lyricism. The Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings brings busy and brilliant passagework for the soloists in the first movement, a still and intense Passacaglia slow movement and a relentlessly high-spirited finale. The Concerto for Two Pianos (3 hands) portrays a generally lighter side of the composer, ending with a delightful rumba, full of cross-rhythms. Phillip Dyson and Kevin Sargent are brilliant and alert piano soloists, with the young Finnish conductor Esa Heikkilä drawing dazzling playing from the Ulster Orchestra, vividly recorded, not least in Beckus.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, September 2008

Conductor, orchestra and the two piano players turn in fine performances. The audio quality is definitely in the rather large percentage group of Naxos recordings of the past few years that can easily be called “very good” though not quite competitive with good SACD releases such as Naxos used to offer. The bass response is clean and solid while the higher frequencies are smooth without any digital edginess or audible distortions present. With his trumpet playing background his compositions often have, even if fairly subtle as here, some particularly beautiful or interesting passages featuring that instrument.

James McCarthy
Limelight, June 2008

Arnold the admirable – An enjoyable and important collection of Arnold’s work

The Fantasy on a Theme of John field…displays Arnold’s range better than any other on the disk. The performances and recordings are excellent.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, January 2008

It sometimes seems, in the arts, as if nothing succeeds like being dead. A year on from Arnold’s death and the record companies cover his music as never before. I’m sure that it’s unfair of me to attribute dark motives to Naxos: after all, the complete Arnold symphonies reissue which I have just nominated as one of my Recordings of the Year (8.505221) was already in the catalogue as single CDs and as a set, a series begun when he was neglected by the establishment, and their wonderful CD of his wind chamber Music (8.570294) could easily have joined my choices for the year. That wind chamber recording had already been three months in the can when Arnold died in September, 2006.

This new CD joins the growing pile of recommended Naxos recordings of Arnold.

Beckus the Dandipratt is described as a Comedy Overture. Arnold himself recorded it in 1955 with the RPO and again in 1991 with the LPO: in 1955 he polished it off in 7:23, but by 1991 it took an incredible 10:45. That earlier version recently appeared in a 2-CD set from EMI, entitled Arnold conducts Arnold (3821462) hailed as Bargain of the Month by John Quinn and Rob Barnett. On the present CD the work takes 8:05, much closer to the earlier timing and, surely, more in the spirit of the piece than Arnold’s 1991 version. It gets the new CD off to an excellent start, very well played and recorded.

Arnold conducts Arnold also contains the Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands), played by its dedicatees, the husband-and-wife team of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. Obviously, their performance, with Arnold himself at the rostrum, is definitive and, though a 1970 ADD recording, still sounds very well. Their EMI recording is timed at 14:21; the new Naxos version takes 13:20. When given its first performance, at the Proms, the Concerto was a show-stopper. The question arises whether the Naxos performers are trying too hard, by shaving a minute off the EMI timing, to repeat the experience.

First impressions are certainly encouraging, with the Technicolor opening, redolent of the best film music, Arnold’s own or Walton’s, very well presented and excellently captured by the wide-ranging recording. Perhaps it fails by a small margin to meet the description given by Paul Harris in his excellent notes: “music of a very dark, almost tragic character”. The central, lyrical section is as seductive as one could wish and the slow movement’s “meltingly romantic melody” also comes over well. In both these movements the performance faithfully matches the respective directions, Allegro moderato and Andante con moto. The finale (allegro) opens jauntily, a glorious rumba with echoes of syncopated jazz. The notes see the whole concerto, and this movement in particular, as Arnold’s stand against the BBC’s avant-garde philosophy. Though it brought the house down on its first outing, at the Proms, it was his last major commission from the BBC and he still fails to receive his fair share of broadcast performances. The Naxos version didn’t quite bring my house down – far from going overboard with their fastish tempi, I found it just a trifle understated – but it came close enough for me to see what had excited the prommers.

The Fantasy on a Theme of John Field is a much darker work from the mid-seventies, around the time of the Seventh Symphony, a powerful work which I admit to finding hard to come to terms with. In my review of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies I chickened out and referred readers to earlier Musicweb reviews. I repeat my warning that the works of this troubled period of his life are not the place to begin one’s exploration of Arnold. Readers may wish to consult Paul Serotsky’s analysis of this work here on Musicweb.

Arnold was now living in Dublin, the native city of John Field, whose Nocturnes predate those of Chopin. Field, too, had had his share of problems and suffered public neglect. Arnold’s sympathy (in the literal sense of fellow-suffering) comes through in this work. The performance is certainly suitably bleak and uncompromising where appropriate, the theme from Field disintegrating at the opening without ever being fully developed; whenever it tries to reassert itself on the piano it is banished by a powerful section of the orchestra, the percussion or the brass, or by the full orchestra. Themes related to other cities where Field had lived receive the same treatment – at best wistful, at worst despairing. At times Arnold almost seems to be contemplating becoming an atonal composer himself, but melodious strains always break through.

There are glimmers of hope in this work, too: the recollection of his mother’s love of Field’s Nocturnes which had inspired him to play them as a boy and the artistic relationship with John Lill, who first performed the work in 1977. A work written without commission and without certainty of being performed was performed by a rising star at the Festival Hall and the ending reflects that new hope. This is not a work which receives many outings, so I have no ‘reference recordings’ with which to compare it: all the more credit to Naxos for giving it to us. They have already given us near-definitive performances of Field’s own Nocturnes (Benjamin Frith on 8.550761 and 8.550762, reviewed on Musicweb by Colin Clarke). Credit, too, for the performance, which captures the multi-faceted aspect of this music very well. The bleaker moments are not shirked but the performers make the ending sound almost as positive as any of the great Romantic warhorse concertos. I originally wrote ‘Grieg or Tchaikovsky’ till I read PS’s note and didn’t want to seem to be cribbing. I read the note after I had made my notes on the performance and found my description of the performance to match PS’s description so closely that I imagine he would approve of this version.

The Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings is another work which is not often performed. This work dates from 1951, a frenetic period in Arnold’s professional life, but not a happy time for him personally: he had just spent three and a half months undergoing the kind of unpleasant treatments then inflicted on the depressed in mental hospitals. Once again, full marks to Naxos for granting us access to this music: it is an attractive work, surprisingly approachable when one considers Arnold’s mental instability, and it again receives a sympathetic performance and recording. I can’t imagine wanting to hear it as often as his best symphonies or the Three-hand Concerto and it seems to be over-egging the pudding to suggest, as the back-cover does, that this is one of Arnold’s finest works, but it certainly deserves to be performed much more often than it is. It reminds us not to try to read too much of the composer’s personality in his or her music: in the end, music is the purest of the arts in that it never definitively ‘means’ anything.

The other works in Naxos’s British Piano Concerto series have been made with established artists such as Peter Donohoe and David Lloyd-Jones, so it was something of a surprise to see three new names – new to me, and, I think, to Naxos – accompanying that of the Ulster Orchestra on this CD. Phillip Dyson has made the Field Fantasia something of a concert speciality, praised by Arnold himself, no less, so it is no surprise that he offers such a fine performance. Kevin Sargent is better known as a film and television composer but he makes such an excellent partner for Dyson in the two-piano works that I really couldn’t tell you who plays which part.

More surprising is the affinity which the Finnish conductor, Esa Heikkilä, shows for Arnold’s music. Perhaps his love of Sibelius was his key to Arnold’s door, but he certainly conducts this music as if to the manner born. I shouldn’t be too surprised: witness Pierre Monteux’s affinity for Elgar.

I have already indicated that the recording is good: wide-ranging but never an end in itself to impress the listener. The notes are all as informative as those for the Three-hand Concerto.

Arnold’s own recordings remain unique, especially that of the Three-hand Concerto with its dedicatees, but I cannot imagine anyone, even those who have the EMI set, feeling short-changed by spending a fiver (UK) on this new recording. What a long way Naxos have come since their CDs of mainstream repertoire were hidden away in Woolworths and the intelligentsia pretended to despise them. One music teacher of my acquaintance even thought that they had been recorded by the Czechoslovak Railway Orchestra.  My first Naxos CD of Haydn’s Op.76 quartets was a revelation (the Kodály Quartet on 8.550129) but I never imagined that I would be reviewing an Arnold recording featuring two little-known works in such fine performances and recording.

The cover, as usual, features appropriate art-work. Naxos covers actually look classier than those of many full-price CDs.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, December 2007

Thanks to the enterprise of several recording companies, the past fifteen years or so have introduced the public to the full glory of the output of Malcolm Arnold. No longer is he seen as a kind of musical buffoon, churning out light pieces, dances and comedy overtures, but as a symphonist of great stature and a master of chamber music. Indeed, we are now lucky enough to have three complete recordings of his nine Symphonies (Handley on Conifer, now Decca, Hickox and Gamba on Chandos and Andrew Penny on Naxos), and two sets of his chamber music on Hyperion and Naxos. This new disk gives us two examples of the light and two of the serious sides of Arnold’s art, and most welcome it is, too.

Beckus the Dandipratt was Arnold’s first success, written whilst he was still a trumpeter with the London Philharmonic, and recorded by that ensemble under the conductorship of Eduard van Beinum in 1948. It’s a riot of a piece, though not without its moments of dark respite, in which the Dandipratt - an old English name for an urchin - emerges triumphant; a kind of English Till Eulenspiegel without the tragic ending. Brilliantly orchestrated, it makes a magnificent start to this recording.

Chronologically, the next work is the Concerto for piano duet, written in the wake of the first set of English Dances. Whilst there is much music for piano duet, concertos for four hands at one piano are rare – Gordon Jacob wrote a very attractive one for Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick in 1969. This music is passionate and owes something to the fact that Arnold had recently spent three and a half months in Springfield Hospital, following a psychotic episode; so often the breakdown in Arnold’s health is reflected in his music. The outer movements of this concerto are swift and, in general, easy-going, whilst the central slow movement is a passacaglia, really a set of seven variations, which culminates in a jazzy dance.

The Concerto for two pianos (three hands), originally called Concerto for Cyril and Phyllis, was a Proms commission – Arnold’s penultimate major BBC commission - and is a real crowd-pleaser. A portentous opening movement is full of bell sounds, but with its tongue firmly in its cheek. It is followed by a real winner of a slow movement containing one of those “pop” tunes Arnold could write when he wanted to. The finale is an unruly rumba, which at the premiere, brought about a five minute ovation and was repeated as an encore. This is Arnold in both his manic and depressive moods … but what music! A recording of the première was issued by the BBC in a 2 CD set (long deleted) made up of live performances of Arnold conducting his own music, celebrating Arnold’s 75th birthday and is indispensable for anyone interested in his music (BBC Radio Classics 15656 91817)

Hugo Cole writes (Malcolm Arnold, ‘An Introduction to his Music’, Faber 1989) that the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field “… remains one of the most disturbing of Arnold’s works …” and it is a difficult work to listen to, for it jumps from idea to idea, violent to wistful, melancholic to comedy chase music. What are we to make of it? On one level it’s a set of variations, but a far from straightforward set, on another it’s an all-out battle between piano and orchestra and between Arnold and Field. Written not long after the dark 7th Symphony and the overtly populist 2nd Clarinet Concerto, the Fantasy employs elements of both, but it is the dark side which informs the work. Poor John Field, the man could never have expected such an assault on his work, but what a work it is. Cole sums the work up as “…offering the listener no clues as to the ways in which (rationally or emotionally) its message should be interpreted.” Very true, but thanks to this recorded performance we can return to the music often and, getting to know it, come to appreciate it as a distant relation of the romantic piano concerto – which, surely, is what it is.

Apart from a moment of confusion from the orchestra at the close of the Concerto for two pianos (why wasn’t this retaken?) this is a fine disc with well thought out, and well played, performances of some very interesting music missing from our concert halls. Phillip Dyson is the virtuoso soloist in the Fantasy, more than ably partnered by Kevin Sargent in the Concertos. The recorded sound is bright and clear placing the performers in a true concert hall setting. A valuable addition to Naxos’s growing catalogue of Arnold recordings.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2007

Listen to this disc and wonder how music of such ribald good humour and sparkling brilliance could have come from a composer who lived a life as a manic depressive. Born in England in 1921, Malcolm Arnold enjoyed a hectic career as an orchestral musician, before settled into a life as a conductor and composer, his many famous film scores bringing rich financial rewards. That he had mental problems emerged in his early 20's, and it was during a period of convalescence following a major breakdown that he composed the vivacious Beckus the Dandipratt. It received tremendous public success, though at the same time marked the beginning of Arnold's difficulty with the music establishment who found a composer of good 'tunes'out of touch with the new world of music they wished to promote. That deeply hurt Arnold and was in no little way responsible for life's downward spiral. Indeed the Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands) from 1969 was the last serious commission he received from the influential BBC - he was just 48 at the time. It's premiere was a tremendous success, the prolonged ovation demanding a repeat of the finale. That it was packed with fun and paid no homage to modernisms was his final undoing. Six years later, and now beset with all sorts of problems, he began his last group of works, including the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field for piano and orchestra. Lasting over twenty minutes, it is often brutal, always deeply impassioned, throwing massive technical challenges at the soloist, and yet somehow still finding wit. Composed in 1951 the Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings comes from an earlier mid-point mental crisis, yet was one of Arnold's finest concertos, full of display and catchy melody. Phillip Dyson is a passionate advocate revelling in the many technical challenges and launching into the big romantic moments with a Rachmaninov sumptuousness. The Ulster strings sound a little hard-pressed at times, but throughout the orchestra contributes colourful support for the young Finnish conductor, Esa Heikkila. The pianos are well-forward, the orchestral sound cleanly detailed. Fervently recommended.

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