Friday, 26 September 2014

Malcolm Arnold Third Symphony & Scottish Dances on Everest

I first came across Malcolm Arnold at grammar school. Mr Mclean, the music teacher, let us hear a recording of the fantastic ‘Tam O’Shanter’ Overture.  Shortly afterwards, I discovered the delicious English Dances on a Decca Eclipse LP, Festival of English Music Volume 1. Not many years later, I heard this version of the Scottish Dances played by the LPO with composer conducting. As a Scot myself, though long exiled ‘furth of the border,’ these dances have always been important to me. They may be pastiche: they might be patronising to Scotsmen, yet they are near perfect in their almost cinematographic picturing of the country and its people. It matches both the stereotypical image of the nation as well as something much more subtle and genuine. If pressed, I would say that that third dance, the ‘allegretto’ is one of the most flawless evocations of the misty Western isles written by anyone- of any nationality.  It moves me to tears, with remembrance of things and people past. Would that I could have seen these isles with Miss ***. It is lovely to have these Dances in my music collection once again.
Malcolm Arnold’s Third Symphony is not one that I have listened to very often. If pressed, I am a huge fan of the Fifth and of the First.  The 3rd was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society and was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 2 December 1957. John Pritchard conducted. This work has been defined as rather ‘gloomy’ with the slow movement being an elegiac ‘funeral march.’  There is a little light relief at the start of the final ‘allegro con brio’ however this is short lived.  I was most impressed by the first movement, which Paul Serotsky has suggested is in ‘Arnold’s new linear style’: it is a kind of twisted sonata form.  Yet, in spite of the fact that there appears to be no typically ‘memorable tune’ throughout the symphony there are many fingerprints of Malcolm Arnold as ‘film composer’ and writer of music that frustrated the cognoscenti if the fifties and sixties.  It has been a pleasure during this review to have listened to this Symphony after many years in abeyance.
Bearing in mind that CD is a recording was made some 56 years ago, there is nothing left to be desired. Arnold handles the orchestra with consummate skill as he negotiates the pages of this reflective symphonic score. The technical quality of the sound is beyond reproach. The liner notes by Paul Affelder, although somewhat gnomic, are of great interest and provide all the information that the listener requires to enjoy these two excellent works. The original artwork has been provided from the 1958 LP. The relatively short duration of the CD is more than compensated for by the ‘budget’ price.
There are currently some five accounts of Arnold’s Third Symphony in the catalogues including versions by Hickox, Penny and Handley. There are many recordings of the Scottish Dances in both orchestral and band arrangements. Without wishing to disparage any of these recordings, I can wholeheartedly recommend this present Everest re-release, in spite of it being more than half a century old.  I have listened to the Symphony twice as part of this review, and am coming to understand that it is one of the composer’s masterpieces, even if it is in some ways uncharacteristic of what we imagine his ‘style’ to be. I just love it. The Scottish Dances will always have a place in my heart –no matter the version - but these on this disc are perfect.

Track Listing:-
Four Scottish Dances, Op.59 (1957)
Symphony No.3, Op.63 (1957) 
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Arnold
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, November 1958
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published 

1 comment:

Paul Brownsey said...

John, What you say about the Third Scottish Dance mirrors my own feelings exactly. From Ben More on Mull I once took a picture of the seascape, islands melting away into mist. A framed copy is on my wall and I have always said: "This is Arnold's Third Scottish Dance."

Many years ago, I heard it as the accompaniment to a tourist video in (I think) Inverness Tourist Information Office. I liked the idea of a pastiche by an Englishman being presented as if it were authentically Scottish. But then, one might say that this piece passes beyond pastiche to grasp something elementally Scottish.