Second Day of 11th Malcolm Arnold Festival
DAY 2 – Sunday 16 October 2016
Event 1 – Arnold: Freya Chambers (clarinet), Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra/Tim Green, Andy Kirkwood (conductors), Royal & Derngate, Northampton.
Arnold: A Sussex Overture op.31; Beckus the Dandipratt op.5; Clarinet Concerto no.2 op.115; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness Suite
A half hour earlier start on the Sunday for an all-Arnold concert by the highly skilled Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra. The main auditorium was less than a quarter full – a shame given the adept musicianship and enjoyable music. We started with anecdotes and a recollection that the composer’s father was one of Northampton’s affluent quality shoe-makers with the firm having a cracking motto: “Cathedral Shoes wear out the pavement”.
A Sussex Overture was composed as part of the celebrations of the Festival of Britain for the Brighton Philharmonic. It’s more of a pastoral tone poem than a jeu d’esprit. It contrasted well with the other overture, Beckus the Dandipratt which followed it. Beckus always seems to me to be cocking a snook at self-absorbed Tam across the border. Beckus is like a strutting British Schweik – a little tyke given to dumb insolence if not uproar as well as the odd soaring melody.
In 1973, just months before a serious suicide attempt, Arnold turned in the Second Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman. For this and the last piece Andy Kirkwood took over from Tim Green. The soloist was the redoubtable Freya Chambers who, without a blink, took us through the first movement with its Rhapsody in Blue upward whoops, its perfect edge-of-dreams moonlit Lento (the duet with horn being notable) and the Soho-in-flames jazzy insurrection that is the finale: Allegro non troppo.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) film music plays with a popular song – Knick Knack Paddy Wack – which we learn was selected by the film’s star Ingrid Bergman. The suite was well done with deep silver string tone – not at all anaemic – and endless reserves of trudging energy. Along the way there are unconsidered highlights such as the echo of solos for flute and cello in the second movement. More dazzling Hollywood precious metal is on display in the finale not to forget the infectious smile of the piccolo. If this is what our youth orchestras can do then the future of music in the UK is secure.
Event 2 – The Voice of the People (Illustrated talk by Kriss Russman), Royal & Derngate, Northampton.
Kriss Rusman began as the principal horn of the BBC Concert Orchestra. He then moved on to become a BBC TV producer and has recently had his completion of George Butterworth’s Fantasia recorded by Bis and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. His provocative account of his time at the BBC and of his BBC TV Omnibus programme “Malcolm Arnold at 70” more than held the attention as did his case for links between the CIA, the Philharmonia Hungarica and the irresistible rise and reign of the avant-garde as facilitated by William Glock. The slam of closed doors and hoots of derision at tonal compositions were for three decades in predominance at the BBC. As far as Arnold was concerned Russman reminded us directly and through extracts from his Omnibus programme shown on BBC1 – can you see that happening today? – that Arnold was at first unable to get his Ninth Symphony played by the BBC until finally Charles Groves conducted the work with the orchestra of the National Centre for Orchestral Studies. A book is in the works and should be a good read.
Event 3 – The Forgotten Documentaries: Presenter, John Griff, Royal & Derngate, Northampton.
BBC Radio Northampton’s John Griff who presided with John Gibbons over yesterday’s Family Concert returned for this programme. It was superbly done with Griff taking welcome trouble to place Arnold’s concert works around each film. My only quibble is that I could have done with a smaller dash of today’s knowing superiority over these modest documentaries of so many years ago. Their qualities speak for themselves. They were fascinating as much for content as for Arnold’s music.
The instructional black and white airfield servicing films were over in a trice. Then came a full-on colour featurette on Hawick and its wool industry. The Riddle of Japan sported a commentary that showed that memories of WWII were still smoking kindling. Science in the orchestra was all part of the self-educational trend of the late 1940s and 1950s. City of Towers (Copenhagen) is a gaudy colour travelogue from filmmaker James A Fitzpatrick complete with music and commentary of regal confidence. For all its many years the film still makes you want to visit Copenhagen. The last film dated from 1954 and showed the young Queen Elizabeth II’s tour of new Zealand. It’s courtesy of British Pathé and was shot in Eastman Kodak. Again the colour is glorious and saturated and so is Arnold’s music. A viable concert piece or suite could surely be made. It seems very likely that John will be back for a second selection of the documentaries next year – I hope so.
Event 4 – Arnold and Others; Songs from the Films: Claire Thompson (soprano), Alasdair Garrett (flute), Jennifer Redmond (piano), Royal & Derngate, Northampton.
This recital was most vivaciously done and with admirable flare and enunciation. First of all we heard four twee curiosities written by Arnold’s great grandfather: The last two reminded me of the songs of the British Isles by Beethoven. Arnold’s music for the film Island in the Sun yielded calypso charmers for flute and piano. The song from St Trinian’s Great Train Robbery was followed by three for a mythical boys’ school (Hallows?). Then we heard a piece for flute and piano which was lush and had about it the cool sway of pampas grass. The stirringly patriotic French song from the Kwai music drew on Claire Thompson’s vibrant delivery; a salty Gallicism. Lastly there was a most moving Madrigal from the film Chalk Garden for flute, voice and piano.
Event 5 – Virtuoso Piano Concertos and some toys: Arnold. Harris: Flora Tzanetaki (piano), Edyta Mydlowska (piano), Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Janus Ensemble/Ben Palmer. Royal & Derngate, Northampton.
Arnold: Concerto for piano duet and strings op.32; Concertino for Clarinet and strings op.29; Toy Symphony op.62
Paul Harris: Buckingham Concerto No.5
This concert started with the show-stopper of the whole weekend: Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for piano duet and strings. This dates from 1951 and was written at the request of Mosco Carner. It was premiered by Carner’s wife Helen Pyke and Paul Hamburger. Hamburger went on to broadcast it again this time with Lisa Fuchsova and the Kalmar Orchestra conducted by Maurice Miles. It is for me one of Arnold’s twenty finest scores. It starts with springy optimism and bonhommie – very fast and smacked down. It has a few pre-echoes of the much more famous Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril but stands strongly by itself. The Larghetto with its mistily defined strings boasted some lovely tone from the Janus Ensemble; here a largish chamber-scaled orchestra. The movement ends in a soft murmur. The final Vivace is celebration of tricksy exuberance. This is Arnold ‘really motoring’ as some might say; perhaps a touch of Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto if we look forward almost a decade. The audience were privileged to hear a world-class performance and if there is any justice (yes, I know) it should be recorded with just these forces. Watch out for the indomitable piano duo Flora Tzanetaki and Edyta Mydlowska in the future. These are players of international standing and should be signed up by the great concert agencies without delay. Wow! The applause in Underground 1/2 was thunderous. I count myself very fortunate indeed to have been there.
The Clarinet Concertino is a revamp of Arnold’s Clarinet Sonatina. It was delightfully done by Peter Cigleris, a rising name in the clarinet world. Flighty insouciance makes way for a sunset glow after which there’s a Furioso in which soloist and orchestra were in noticeably synchronous orbit. Mr Cigerlis won the John Ireland Chamber music award with a performance of that composer’s Fantasy-Sonata. He also premiered Guy Woolfenden’s arrangement of Arnold’s Pre-Goodman Rag for wind ensemble.
After this came Paul Harris’s Buckingham Concerto No.5. The music is extremely attractive with an Allegro Maestoso which is all chiming romantic grandeur, an Andante Affettuoso in which the vibraphone delightfully tinted the atmosphere and a carefree Molto allegro a giocoso. I think we all deserve a complete sequence of these concertos.
The concert finished with Arnold’s Toy Symphony which in addition to the usual small orchestra added toy instruments in the shape of two whistles (quail – possibly missing – and cuckoo), trumpets, dulcimer, drum and triangle. The toy instruments are rarely silent in what amounts to an absurdist fondant of a piece.
Palmer secured tangy and sweeping results from his orchestra. He has at elast one other Arnold connection: in 2015 he made the first recording of David Matthews’ arrangement of Arnold’s String Quartet No. 2, the Sonata for Strings.
Event 6 – Arnold, Walton: Craig Ogden (guitar) BBC Concert Orchestra/John Gibbons (conductor), Main Auditorium, Royal & Derngate, Northampton.
Arnold: Overture, Tam O’Shanter op.61; Guitar Concerto op.67; Serenade for guitar and orchestra op.13; Symphony No. 6 op.113
Walton: Hamlet – Funeral Music; Prelude and Spitfire Fugue
This Gala Concert in the Derngate Auditorium was recorded for future broadcast. It was noticeable for including both of Arnold’s concert works for guitar and orchestra. Craig Ogden knows these works well having recorded both for Chandos. The programme played to John Gibbons’ strengths which include an artless welcoming manner yet founded on a wide span of knowledge and practice. As Beckus had opened Day 2 so the wily and lucky Scottish Tam closed it in uproar and in a few very telling passages of pianissimo tension. After these shenanigans the weary tragedy of the Hamlet cortège restored equanimity. Arnold’s Guitar Concerto followed. His orchestra is smaller with single woodwind, French horn and strings. The scoring is pure, uncluttered and almost skeletal with the guitar given a discreet electronic boost. It’s a self-mesmerising piece: one of Arnold’s treasured lisped-out melodies in the first, an extended slow movement of desolation and a warmhearted finale.
After the interval Walton’s Prelude and Spitfire Fugue worked a magic that balances majesty, high-flying dynamism and a sense of valorous deeds. Ogden, self-contained and in command, came back to the stage for the very short Serenade. An exquisite melody is passed back and forth between guitar and orchestra. If the Serenade sets the seal on serenity Arnold’s Sixth Symphony is troubled and tragic. Again Gibbons’ spoken introduction proved him a gifted yet concise communicator.
The half-hour Sixth Symphony dates from the mid-1960s and the very same Cornish years when he lived St. Merryn near Padstow and which also brought the Cornish Dances and The Padstow Lifeboat. It’s a fairly tough nut with a coruscating Energico in which woodwind and brass figures tumble and purl with the deliberate motion of a ‘slinky’ progressing downstairs but with raw attack rather than innocence. Parts of this work – especially the centre – sound like Ives’ Unanswered Question. In the finale there are great rolling fanfares but they do not proclaim triumph. I would not have been taken aback if the work had ended in a long steady gradient into silence. As it is Arnold, almost transparently gathers himself for something close to a conventional ending.
I didn’t know of John Gibbons’ championing of verismo rarities nor that he had a disc of Skalkottas to his name. As Principal Conductor of Worthing Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of Ealing Symphony Orchestra he has gained a following through promoting young musicians in repertoire that regularly kicks over the conventional traces. This orchestra and conductor will in turn, I hope, become stalwarts of the English music festival (Alwyn in Snape); a pleasure to see them stretching their wings again.