11th Malcolm Arnold Festival Displays Composer’s Musical Breadth

11th Malcolm Arnold Festival 


2016 sees the tenth year of the Festival since Arnold’s death and the 95th since his birth. Director Paul Harris, typically charming and resolute, says of this year’s theme: “We’ve called it ‘The Voice of the People’ … [which] sums up Sir Malcolm’s intentions as a composer. He was always determined to write music that could be immediately appreciated and although he embraced many 20th century “isms”, his music remains utterly accessible.”

Northampton’s Malcolm Arnold Festival still has a strong and even hectic pulse; this after ten years, with concerts, recitals, talks and illustrated lectures piling in one after another. It comes to about a dozen events over two days. New and usually good experiences and plenty to learn.

There are exceptions but Arnold’s music is pretty much past the stage of campaigns for recordings. Chandos (Hickox/Gamba), Naxos (Penny) and Universal (Sony, Decca) have complete sets of the symphonies. In 2006 Decca issued a three box Arnold Edition with the Handley Arnold symphony cycle at its core (the symphonies reissued on Sony) and all the concertos alongside much else. Arnold Festival Director, Paul Harris, continue to take the music into the live arena. Many composers well represented on disc struggle for concert reality; Bax and Rubbra are examples. Arnold by contrast does more than respectably in the concert hall but the annual splurge in Northampton remains the most splendidly intense Arnold-fest in the concert diary.

DAY 1 – Saturday 15th October

Event 1 – Festival Launch:  Singers from Nevill Holt Opera, The Choir of St Matthew’s, Northampton; The St Matthew’s Singers; Northamptonshire County Community Choir; Malcolm Arnold Academy Chapel Choir; James Bowers (Henri Christophe); Beatrice Acland (Henri Christophe; Mary – Simeon); Ely Sinfonia/Steve Bingham (March; Henri Christophe) and Simon Toyne (Simeon), Main Auditorium,  Royal & Derngate, Northampton.

Arnold HRH The Duke of Cambridge March op.60; Henri Christophe (premiere); Song of Simeon op.69

Nigel Hess, film composer, launched the Festival in style at the Derngate Auditorium. In this he followed in the footsteps of Hayley Mills, Robert Hardy and Tim Rice.  Hess had been emailing Ms Mills in New York only that morning and she recalled that Arnold taught her the delights of Chateau Yquem.

Arnold was good at marches and they appear in his works of other genres such as the splendid Eighth Symphony. The Duke of Cambridge came about for the centenary of the Royal Military School of Music. It is said that this 1957 piece took its name from the pub opposite Kneller Hall’s main gates. it’s a smasher of a march – lovely trio and rolling undulating horns. It turns out to be as good for its melody as for its quick-march strut.

The most surprising item came in the form of an operatic Arnold premiere. It’s the opening 207 bars (about 12 minutes) of his unfinished opera, Henri Christophe. The composer worked on this in 1949. The plot is fashioned around a slave who became ruler of Haiti and who shot himself with a silver bullet. Like George Lloyd’s John Socman it was to have been written for the Festival of Britain. Socman was finished but the Arnold grand opera never got far off the ground because the Festival management committee were fearful it would be too avant-garde. That fear seems implausible now but works such as Arnold’s not much later Horn Concerto No. 1 and Cobbett string quartet Vita Abundans give some grounds. At least in subject matter and locale it can be grouped with Alan Bush’s The Sugar Reapers and Toussaint, the Haiti-based opera by David Blake.

This was a concert performance with solo singers (including one John Gibbons) in black. The full orchestra yielded up a rich brooding sound – portents, lightning forks and ignorant armies clashing by night. The harp is used to good effect. Some sense of drama is caught with singer walking forward from the wings when they sing. Off-stage voices emerge with a good theatrical sense from the boxes. Arnold has time for at least one gorgeous melody as the old lady sings of the time when her skin was soft and golden. I doubt there was a single person in the hall who was happy that the opera ended almost mid-note. Even in its ‘shorn’ state I hope that this will be recorded.

The Song of Simeon, ‘a nativity masque’ for solo singers, choir (adult and child) and orchestra was written for a charity performance in Drury Lane on 5 January 1960 with choreography by John Cranko; no dancing on this occasion. The libretto is by Christopher Hassall who also provided the words for Troilus and Cressida by Arnold’s friend William Walton. The performance here was introduced with vivid reminiscences by that fine actor Nicholas Chagrin – son of the composer Francis Chagrin. He walked onto the immense Drury Lane stage as a child taking the role of Arak; that part was taken at this concert by the forthright Benjamin Kiely from the crowded choral benches. It’s a hugely attractive work where sacred and profane jostle and bustle. The sacred its to be found in the singing of Simeon and in the gleaming, celesta-starry prelude and finale which for me recalled Finzi’s In Terra Pax. The music-hall profane includes contributions from the on-the-make innkeeper and Katie Coventry – high and haughty. Both are sung with relish and in-character. One example: just before Susanna’s Dance (Hollywood Salome to the fore) Moore licks his lips in anticipation. Simeon is sung with wan spirituality by Jonathan Hanley. I am fairly sure that Arnold had little heart for the Simeons of this world. Oompah humour comes in the form of the Innkeeper duet and the Shepherds song in Scene 2. You’ll recognise it if you know Arnold’s Hoffnung contributions or the finale of the Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril. Dissidence and anarchy were part of Arnold’s make-up. The work ends with a carol and a return to pristine mystery of the Prelude. All very well done indeed.

Event 2 – Brass Concert: The Young Wallace Collection plays Arnold for brass. Michael Gibbs (horn), Daniel de Gruchy Lambert (trumpet), Benny Vernon (trombone), Stuart Beard (tuba)/John Wallace (trumpet), Royal & Derngate, Northampton.

Arnold: Fantasy for Trumpet op.100; Brass Quintet no. 2 op.132; Fantasy for Trombone op.101; Fanfare for Louis; Fantasy for Horn op.88; Three Shanties op.4 arr. Denis Wick for Brass Quintet; Fantasy for Trombone op.102; Quintet for Brass op.73

There are plenty of connections with John Wallace including his premiere of Arnold’s late trumpet concerto, his telling to-camera role in the 1991 Arnold Omnibus documentary and his having launched a previous Arnold Festival. His nationwide young brass-player competition took the brass works of Arnold as its essence and the winners participate in ‘the brass’ on a new Nimbus double CD launched that day in Northampton. Wallace’s introductions were personable and informative. The Fantasies are short and showy in the technical range of each instrument in partnership with the emotional style of the player.  The two Brass Quintets contrasted nicely with the second quiet and uncannily catching the filmic image of empty city streets and a rainy dawn. While the first, which was written for the New York Brass Quintet in 1961 expended themes in lavish profusion with a slow mournful Scottish second movement and a defiantly joyful finale, the very picture of a boulevardier swinging along.

Event 3 – Illustrated talk on Arnold’s Early Music (1937-42):  Alice Pinto (piano) with Abigail Taylor (soprano), Adam Hollingsworth (piano), Mika Lopez-Woodward (oboe), Quentin Quartet, Royal & Derngate, Northampton.

Arnold Serenade in G; Four (of 9) Songs from Kensington Gardens (premiere); Two sketches for oboe and piano; Vita Abundans (string quartet)

Alice Pinto always offers revelations directly and through her other performing partners. This illustrated recital treated Arnold’s childhood and his days at college, brilliant and non-conformist. We had the premiere of four songs from his cycle Kensington Gardens the manuscripts of which came to light only very recently. These one minute songs took the verse of unfashionable poet Humbert Wolfe (once a mouldering denizen of secondhand bookshop shelves) – also used by Holst notably in the otherworldly Betelgeuse – in the poems: Lupin, Laburnum, Hawthorn and Daffodil. They were sung with delicate vulnerability by Abigail Taylor who struck just the right tone. The concert started with Pinto’s playing of Serenade which had a Bredon Hill blue-horizon quality and soft-scrunch harmonies. Taylor’s fine accompanist Adam Hollingsworth then played the solo (completed by Paul Harris) Dream City (another Wolfe inspiration) with its bluesy instability of focus. Its sea-motion tendrils are reminiscent of William Baines and Cyril Scott. He was then joined by Mika Lopez-Woodward in the Two Sketches for oboe and piano: a rumba-style first and a second seeming to portray water-fowl flitting among the reeds. Pinto finished with the Quentin Quartet’s performance of Vita Abundans. With it Arnold secured the Cobbett second prize in 1941; the first went to Ruth Gipps. It’s a short (13 mins) and lively piece but very tough with inventive pizzicato and a tango ostinato. Pinto likened it to the Bartok quartets.

Event 4 – Family Concert: Arnold, Bowers, Hess: . John Griff (narrator),  Nick Bunker (trumpet), Northampton Symphony Orchestra/John Gibbons.(conductor), St Matthew’s Church, Northampton (RB)

Arnold A Grand, Grand Overture op.57; Carnival of Animals op.72; Symphonic Study: Machines op.30; English Dances Set II op.30

Timothy Bowers Carnival of Carnivores

Paul Harris Little Red Cap for narrator, solo trumpet and orchestra

Nigel Hess Ladies in Lavender

Into the coach next for the only concert not to take place in the Royal and Derngate. This generously timed family concert kicked off with A Grand Grand Overture: more Hoffnung collisions between the grand manner and the mundane. There were three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher – the latter wielded by Paul Harris; David Attenborough at the premiere. Where was the kitchen sink? Perhaps its role is taken by the grand tones of the church organ. The pop-guns’ role (which eventually laid low the four electrical appliances) was taken by the side-drum. John Griff was the maitre d’ and narrator for the concert, roles which he carried off triumphantly. He reminded us that the vacuum cleaners were operated at the premiere by Sheila Arnold and Pauline Del Mar. John Gibbons deftly held this event of many small components together and extracted the maximum musical value.

The Carnival of Animals was punctuated by poems from local schools. The musical vignettes are short: The Giraffe – all airy lofty woodwind; The Sheep – enigmatic with much drum punctuation. The swinging Gershwinny gait of Cows; Mice squeaky and small in super Disney imagery and the orotund Jumbo with car-horn whoop. Chiroptera (bats): a dumb show of violins with bows not touching the strings and a final bell. Timothy Bowers’ Carnival of Carnivores – a sequence of very short miniatures – then had its premiere with the majestic Lion finally mixing it Sheep with predictable results. Bowers later makes hilarious use of Sheep may safely graze. Children from local schools then process in quietly playing their roles with wood-blocks and rattle in The Crocodiles and waving finger-lights in Glow worms. Bears: the lonely wanderers introduced the audience to some complex string writing (à la Roy Harris) with the tuba voicing the silent expanse of wilderness. The Cunning of Wolves has a wide-boy swagger. Meerkats: the snake hunters is ceaselessly active. The Cheetah blends savannah openness and Jurassic Park.

Paul Harris appears next as the composer of Little Red Cap with Nick Bunker (trumpet and carpenter of many years) as the endlessly flavoursome wolf and no mean narrator through the agency of the trumpet. There was also a confident young lady called Carmen chosen from the audience who screamed on cue as the granny meets her temporary fate with the wolf. It’s a deeply entertaining piece out of the school of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Roger Payne and Alfred Bradley’s The Little Swallow and the Happy Prince for narrator and brass band. You might know of Mossolov’s fearsome The Iron Foundry or even Bliss’s Machines but Malcolm Arnold wrote his own related piece. It’s as neglected as his other early tone poem The Larch Trees which is the complete and very pastoral antithesis of Machines. The orchestration strips out the woodwind and the hard-textured music whoops and crunches but Arnold cannot resist introducing a peeling melody towards the end of this short piece. Nigel Hess’s Ladies in Lavender was touchingly done by the leader of the orchestra. Certainly sentimental, its brand of gloriously frictionless caramel was most tellingly done. Back to Arnold for the English Dances Set II op.30. The orchestra and John Gibbons played the concert out in the vest best manner. The second dance stood out for its sharp attack and rigid rhythmic observance with a rolling bloom to the horns which returned in primis in the final dance. The third had many of us thinking about Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow – a delicious inspiration.

The two composers stepped forward to acknowledge the applause.

Event 5 – Arnold, Fricker, Chagrin:  The Lowry Quintet [Jennifer Dyson (flute); Beatrice Hubble (oboe); Harry Michalas (clarinet); Julia Payne (horn); Richard Ion (bassoon)]. Royal & Derngate, Northampton.

Arnold: Wind Quintet op.2; Dream CityFantasy for Clarinet op.87; Four Irish Dances op.126 arr. by Jonathan Whiting; Three Shanties op.4

Peter Racine Fricker: Wind Quintet op.5

Francis Chagrin: Divertimento for wind quintet

We were back to the over-sultry venue of Underground 1/2 for the evening concert by Manchester’s young wind quintet: The Lowry. The Malcolm Arnold Wind Quintet op.2 was written for the principals of the LPO. The score was then loaned to the Philharmonia and finally turned up many years afterwards in the papers of Stephen Waters. It’s a clubbable mellifluous cassation with an egalitarian share-out of musical delights yet a nicely blended mélange of sound. Only in the third movement does Arnold throw off the geniality and look to the grisly and the grotesque. Peter Racine Fricker’s Wind Quintet has some nicely weighted dissonances and The Lowry showed a great sense of ensemble which I am sure must come from having worked so long as a group as well as from sheer application in rehearsal. Its music is extra-sec and trippingly cerebral. Arnold’s Dream City, here arranged by Paul Harris, takes this 1938 piano solo and makes of it a gorgeously Gallic and lushly Delian static poem. We must hear more of this piece. The Arnold Fantasy for Clarinet (1966) is a journey through sadness. Wonderfully atmospheric again and no japes.  Francis Chagrin’s Divertimento is jovial and finally vigorous; a very entertaining piece. Arnold’s late Irish Dances are low-key and not crowd-pleasers: sauntering with flute doubling piccolo, morose and thoughtful, graceful and melancholic. They’re not really dances at least not in the sense established for Arnold’s essays for England, Cornwall and Scotland. The final Three Shanties provide brilliant liquor yet again. That rocking Carmen ostinato always raises a smile. The tipsy tip-toe second movement steers well clear of fighting drunk and is a nice prelude to the final and irrepressible entertainment of Johnny go down to Hilo. The Lowry reprised the first movement as an encore.

Rob Barnett

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