Twelve Years of Celebrating Malcolm Arnold in Northampton

The 12th Malcolm Arnold Festival. Royal and Derngate and St Matthew’s Church, Northampton, 14-15.10.2017 (RBa)


Introduction – “Abounding in singable tunes” is the strap-line for this year’s festival of music by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006). Perhaps in this lies the reason why Arnold’s music continues to defy oblivion. The works of others often slip rapidly away into the depths after their deaths … if not before; Arnold’s show no sign of tiring—not even of breathlessness. What’s more, he continues to figure strongly not just on CD and radio, but also in the concert hall. It is some measure of this that I have now heard his masterly Fifth Symphony live twice since 2013.

The staying power of Arnold music’s may also have something to do with his having written for pretty well every permutation of voice and instrument. Film music, traditionally a great disposable quantity, has turned out to be part of Arnold’s presence. The music for brass band ensures that he figures in a very particular musical world that keeps his music in circulation. Devastatingly memorable popular pieces like the various national orchestral dances have ensured that his name has had prominence where other more “serious”’ composers have suffered. There is every reason to believe that his music has and will have a place in the concert and listening worlds of the future.

In 2011, this very same Festival boasted a performance of all nine symphonies. It was my loss that I did not get to that event. This year there are two symphonies, but the widest representation will be found in what is a seethingly active programme across eleven concerts. These span Arnold’s orchestral, choral and chamber music, as well as songs and film music. All but one of the events took place in Northampton’s Royal & Derngate (R&D). This multi-level, multi-space venue has many strengths, but its transmission of non-musical noise (air-conditioning and PA) especially into Underground 1­-2 and 4 during concerts is a minus, as is the mugginess and oppressive dark of Underground 1-2 in which many of the events are held.

The Children’s concert was held in St Matthew’s Church, the one time home of that champion of the arts, Walter Hussey, and the place where Arnold’s parents met. The Festival audience were ferried there and back by coach.

It is a measure of the Festival’s success that I came away with obstinately present thoughts about Arnold. These included unexpected facets such as the resolutely tough and intriguingly episodic chamber works of the mid-1940s. There are also undiluted happy memories which send me back to listening again to The Return of Odysseus, the Harmonica Concerto and above all the astonishing Brass Band Fantasy. Hopes are high for a recording of all that early piano music, the Concert-Piece to which we were introduced by Malcolm Arnold Academy students and John Gibbons’ working-up of the Telemark Suite.

Day 1: Saturday 14 October

Event 1—Festival Launch 10:30

The Return of Odysseus

Scottish Dances

Sir Peter Ellwood, a leading figure in the life of Northampton and Chairman of the RPO Advisory Council, gave the Festival its launching blessing. He spoke with affable sincerity of the prodigiously productive Arnold, never a follower of fashion, in fact standing in relation to it more as a demolition ball. Arnold was also recognised as the encourager of the young and aspiring. The most telling point for me was the one about fashion. While some of Arnold’s music—the film side—spoke directly to the film audiences of the time, his music for the concert hall collided with the tastes of the academic cognoscenti and the adherents of dissonance. The concertos and symphonies met thorns and stones. At least they did until the first stirrings of the swing towards melody and tonal music in the mid-1970s. In this he was not alone. His fellow Northamptonians (Rubbra and Alwyn), remarkably all alive to witness the change, suffered and recovered in a similar way, Alwyn, a fellow film and concert music composer, is an approximate parallel to Arnold in many aspects.

In the first concert, the Glasgow Philharmonia Orchestra were conducted by Ross Gunning and Simon Toyne. The four young choirs were all local to Northampton. The orchestra members, who had travelled by coach from Glasgow the previous day and had spent the night in sleeping bags in a local church hall, were fresh as spring.

Two of the four Scottish Dances were played before the cantata. The dances were pressed forward hard, pedal-down, by Ross Gunning. The first was all strut, skirl and whoop. The second came across as some woozy refugee from Tam o ’Shanter.

The half-hour cantata, conducted by Simon Toyne, saw the wide stage filling with young, and very young, choristers. They gathered in a crescent several deep around the back of the orchestra. This span produced some good antiphonal effects later on.

The Odysseus tale is well enough known, as is his bloodily triumphant homecoming. Arnold’s is a late-ish work from the mid 1970s and terribly out of sorts with the musical establishment of those days. He opens things as he closes them, in fragile quiet. A xylophone tolls at a clock-like tempo, signalling the passing of time. Arnold repeatedly uses the naysayers’ sung phrase “He’ll never come back” and interlaces it with the sort of perilous’’oompah” idea he uses in The Song of Simeon. With one exception (Penelope), and then once and briefly, there are no solos. Instead there is more of a sense of narrative and group singing. If he had wanted to make it semi-operatic, Arnold would have allocated to Odysseus a solo voice. As it is, seamen and doomed vainglorious suitors have their massed voices. Arnold uses a blizzard of Berio-like chatter at one point, and a march that briefly recalls the glorious Eighth Symphony. The choirs were good. It is testimony to the hours of rehearsing and coaching that many words emerged clearly in such a large assemblage of singers and musicians.

The Third Dance is always a delight, though pushed quite hard this time. I would just note a faultless and vulnerable oboe solo which is often lost in the mêlée but here was clear as day. The skirling last dance again took no prisoners, and amongst the shower of detail came a whisper-quiet staccato trumpet. Delightful again. Glaswegian forces have made a CD recording of the Odysseus piece.

Event 2—“Mr Pye, an island”—12:00. U1/2

This radio play by Mervyn Peake with Arnold’s music was presented live for the first time since its original broadcast on the Home Service on Wednesday 10 July 1957 at 21:45. It is a fantasy piece, supernatural imaginative theatre played out largely in some anonymous Channel Islands isle. There is a big cast with ten players, many taking multiple roles. The actors were arranged in front of the audience and behind the actors the conductor and a middling sized chamber ensemble.

In crude summary, Mr Pye arrives on the island and sets about changing things and people. He becomes something of a presence and finds he is sprouting wings. Disconcerted, he comes to the view that he can stop this by adopting evil ways. Right enough the wings then recede but horns sprout from his temple. This is a reverse he does not welcome, and neither do the islanders. Gradually his behaviour changes again and the horns recede and the wings grow once more. The islanders become a chasing mob and are finally astonished. Having fallen from the cliffs Mr Pye extends his wings and is seen sweeping off towards the horizon.

This story occupies a strange hinterland between Arthur Machen, Stella Gibbons, Algernon Blackwood and Susanna Clarke. Quite a few of the characters are painted with a caricaturing brush. I do hope that the BBC will now be stirred to try a fresh radio production.

Arnold’s music consists of nearly forty very short cues. These were vividly and commandingly done by an ensemble of about ten players conducted by Paul Truman. It ranged from little ragamuffin marches—a sort of English Schweik, the impressionistic abandoned wash and crash of the sea, magically hushed sheen, gleaming chiming music and general diaphanous enchanting effects. Much of this would not be out of place in Prospero’s Island. There were also some larger-than-life sound-effects: gulls, door knocking and glugging noises.

That it is the only radio play Arnold wrote incidental music for is surprising. There was, however, to be another music-supplemented production on BBC Radio seven years later when, a very different composer, Tristram Cary supplied a score for small orchestra for Peake’s: The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb.

Event 3—15:00—St Matthews Church, Northampton

Family Concert

Philip Achille (harmonica), Young harmonica players from Malcolm Arnold Academy & Glasgow Philharmonia/Ross Gunning

Arnold – Eight Children’s Pieces arranged for orchestra; Harmonica Concerto; St Trinians Suite

John Williams – Jurassic Park

Tim Bowers – Phil-Harmonica for solo harmonica, massed harmonicas and orchestra

The concert began with Arnold’s Eight Children’s Pieces arranged (by the composer?) from a set of piano miniatures. These little gems, each over and done with before you knew it, ranged from Purcellian grandeur, English pastoral impressionism, lilting musicmaking Butterworth Idyll style, lightly swinging, buzzing anger to boisterous celebration. Next time someone is thinking of a concert around the English Dances, try having a look at the sixth and seventh of these pieces. The orchestra handled these well, including a finale that smacks of the Fifth Symphony. The young players of the Glasgow Philharmonia are a music-making force to be reckoned with, but the brass section is something special. Their pealing waveform delight in the penultimate dance was something to treasure.

It was, as The Beachboys might have said, an “excitation” at last to hear the Arnold Harmonica Concerto. Philip Achille, a virtuoso of his instrument (and more), played the harmonica supported by microphoned amplification. This last aspect was done in much the same way as with the guitar solo in last year’s gala concert, the one that included the two Arnold guitar concertante works. The sequence of three short movements encompassed thoughtful melancholy, elegiac reflection and joyous capering. For much of the time you can almost see the glistening early morning pavements and mournful fog.

The wide-screen romantic sweep and roll of the John Williams’s Jurassic Park compilation worked a treat. The spirit of the piece was never in doubt, although the execution occasionally slithered into blurred focus.

The premiere of the piece by Tim Bowers (who was present) revealed a short composition with a clear dichotomy between orchestra and harmonicas. The harmonica writing is suave and romantic. The orchestra’s role was more subdued as to volume and as to style. As a backdrop to the harmonicas, it functions as a calculatedly dry neo-classical skein—lively but without a great deal of emotional juice. That aspect fell to the harmonicas. Achille was kept more than busy throughout. The twenty or so children, playing a range of harmonicas, had their unison moment in the sun in the middle movement.

Then for the St Trinian’s Suite there was well-acted horsing around between two brilliant young pianists. There were no half measures between them when it came to jostling and smirking. There was even some knock-about play-acting with a badger handpuppet—OK, I’ve failed, again—you had to be there. This was, after all, a family concert. As for the music, it is Arnold at his anarchically wild and woolly. Of course this only works with players who bring to bear sledloads of craft and technique. That is what this orchestra and these two pianists have and gave. Shame the names of the piano duettists, announced by the MC, were not in the programme book. Surprisingly, at least to me, inky depths are to be found in the orchestral part of the St Trinian’s work—more than you might think. There is certainly more of that than I have ever noticed in listening to the suite on CD.

The MC as usual was the dashing John Griff, who is such a hero of these Festivals. He is never dull, and is always sincerely encouraging to potentially nervous participants.

Event 4—17:30—Rushden Brass Band/Adele Hudson—Underground 4

Arnold – Suite No.1; Fantasy for Brass Band; Suite No.2; Inn of the Sixth HappinessPadstow Lifeboat

Arnold’s very first teacher, Frank Burton, and Malcolm himself, played in the Rushden Band. This concert was held in what amounts to an open-access forum on the unenclosed floor below the box office. The thirty-strong band (with xylophone, cymbals and wood block) were more than equal to the challenge of an all-Arnold programme. Here is evidence, iterated time and again, that this composer not only has good and occasionally supreme ideas but knows when to stop expounding them. His ideas are succinctly expressed, and duration does do not outstrip the material. Sadly, there was competition from the air-conditioning and noises of bottle stock being moved around the bar.

The two three-movement brass band suites run the gamut from sad nobility to delicately touched in colours to add mood ambiguity and end-of-pier fun. Misty mystery cut from the same cloth as the Cornish Dances also made its impact. There was a superb cornet solo in the middle movement of No.2. The Fantasy, which the band had taken to elite levels for a competition in January, proved scorchingly effective. It is extremely accessible and astonishingly creative. It revealed some kinship with the Fifth Symphony. Solos from cornet, trumpet and tuba subtly completed the picture. As the conductor said “not for the faint-hearted”.

The little digest of the best bits from The Inn of the Sixth Happiness kept the tempo up. How pleasing to hear the hint of counterpoint of the opening splendour in the middle of the This Old Man march. The concert ended with The Padstow Lifeboat, a memento of Arnold’s years in North Cornwall complete with the bellicose moan of the Trevose foghorn articulated by pairs of euphoniums and tubas. The music’s vivid evocation of crashing waves and pummelled cliffs was superbly done, as was the filigree trumpet work over the main march.

Nice that Paul Harris was able to show the audience Malcolm’s first trumpet, purchased from Thompson’s, a Northampton music shop of the time. Paul is happy to consider loaning out the trumpet for a performance of Arnold’s Trumpet Concerto.

Event 5—19:30—Underground 1/2

Arnold and the War Years

Jack Lambert (piano/presenter), Jenny Dyson and her quintet

Arnold—Trio for flute, viola and bassoon; Duet for flute and viola; Quintet for flute, horn, bassoon, viola and violin

Alwyn—Sonatina for viola and piano

Martinů —Madrigal Sonata for flute, violin and piano

Messiaen—Quartet for End of Time Violin and piano (Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus)

Jack Lambert introduced a concert of music from the war years. He was also the pianist. The non-Arnold items included the hushed beauty of the finale of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Martinů  wrote his Madrigal Sonata for flute, violin and piano during the 1940s in the USA. It stands out as a sort of compact brother to that composer’s Fourth Symphony, especially in the first movement. In its finale a memorable squeaking hobgoblin dance gave the piece a strong identity. Alwyn’s Sonatina No.2 for viola and piano, which had been written for violist Watson Forbes, spoke in long cantabile lines, and had a central movement in which the viola emotes away most touchingly. The three Arnold pieces had in common a soundworld comprising short cell­s and articulation in which the listener is aware of the joints. The music suggests echoes and winks, and at its most effervescent we might think that Arnold rather admired Rossini. The central movement of the Trio was notable for its grey wisps and chills that gave light but no warmth. The bleak Duo for flute and viola was written while Arnold was recovering from having in despair shot himself in the foot. The Quintet was written for Myra Hess’s wartime concerts. It is again quite overcast and downbeat. There is some change in the finale—it moves from the mournful to the skeletal to fragments—that suggest a spavine whirligig in Petrushka’s Easter Fair. Its kaleidoscopic shards, including Hispanic and echt-Viennese material, might also be a reflection of a world where the world’s flotsam and jetsam fetched up in the streets of wartime London.

Day 2: Sunday 15 October 2017

Event 6—11:00—Underground 1/2

Dame Monica Mason—talking about ballets and Malcolm Arnold with the cultural historian and broadcaster Christopher Cook

Arnold wrote six ballet scores: Homage to the Queen (1953); Rinaldo and Armida (1954); Solitaire (1956); Sweeney Todd (1959); Elektra (1963); The Three Musketeers (2006)

This proved a fascinating interview, not least because of Dame Monica’s utter candour and her insistence on drawing the line between memory and speculation. She thought that Arnold, who worked quickly because of his grounding in the film industry, was well liked by Frederick Ashton. Ashton relished the speed with which Arnold would adjust his music to meet choreographic demands. Other highlights included being told that with some slight exceptions the notation of choreography did not begin in the UK until the mid or late 1950s (neither Homage nor Rinaldo had their original dancing notation surviving). Some now-archive filming of the step “orchestrations” is all that survives once the choreographer or dancers had died. Dame Monica recalled that Dame Ninette de Valois had called Arnold “the finest composer of dance music since Tchaikovsky”. It was de Valois who had suggested Arnold for Solitaire in which the interviewee had danced. She also took the prominent role of Clytemnestra in the violent, very loud and percussive ballet Elektra. This production—a creature of the 1960s—was a thing of extreme violence. Dame Monica recalled that the stage designs were sexually explicit. The positions she was asked to strike with her partner playing the role of Aegisthus were considered shocking at the time—and this was the 1960s. The score is pretty much of a match. Its sustained volume and angularity registered strongly when I heard it recently at Salford. She went on to praise Arnold’s music as the antithesis of the “wallpaper music” beloved of the young people who brought their ideas to her.

Event 7—12:00—Auditorium

Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust

For this concert by the young Northampton County players the musicians were in two bands: a full orchestra and a not much smaller windband.

The orchestra played the two Little Suites written for young players. The Little Suite No.1, conducted by Pam Carter, suffered in the first movement. Clearly the players were getting into their stride and clawing their way up to operating temperature. By the second movement they were well and truly warmed up and seemed to relish one of Arnold’s typical meeting places where delight and optimism constantly trade places. The finale went with a spring, carefree, corks popping, and with a silkily delivered counter-melody from the strings. A change of conductor (Chris Hiscock) came for Little Suite No.2. Its typical call to arms, tensile upbeat and pattering energy were wholeheartedly delivered. This preceded the sensitive depths of the second movement with its gently nostalgic dance atmosphere. The finale seemed to be taking a leaf out of the book of the Fourth Symphony and Commonwealth Christmas Overture, but perhaps Arnold had also been casting admiring glances at Bernstein’s West Side Story. All that uninhibited Latino and Caribbean percussion came as a decided contrast with the other movements.

The stage was then cleared and the orchestra took to the side-stage boxes. The windband—and a very large Grainger-sized one it was—took to the platform complete with extensive percussion: celesta, marimba and xylophone. The Homage to the Queen proved no pretty bouquet. A huge energy and volume registered like some dinosaur lurching out of a cloyingly viscous swamp. There is a touch of the acrid and the acid in this writing, which might easily have been Herrmann in a Ray Harryhausen spectacular or perhaps a Film Noir score for Jules Dassin. The huge sound made this a crowded hour indeed but pretty or charming … never.

Things relaxed for the Prelude, Siciliano and Rondo which is an arrangement of the Brass Suite No.1. Its highlight was, as with yesterday’s brass version (Rushden), the middle movement. In whichever orchestration that movement virtually defines heart’s-ease.

Event 8—14:00-15:15—Underground 1/2

The Forgotten Documentaries (II) with John Griff

Only at an event of this type would this aspect of a composer’s music get such meticulous attention. John Griff, very much a mainstay of these Festivals, has already surveyed some of the lesser-known feature films. Now, for the second year, he turns his attention to the documentaries. These bread and butter on the table assignments can be a challenge for commentary, in that the paper music has long disappeared. All we have are the soundtracks. Mr Griff showed excerpts and more from about a dozen of these shorts. His commentary showed his thoughtful approach and a good harvest of interesting connections and history. From a clutch of 1940s RAF “flashes” (short instructional films: very much of their time as were all these) we were shown three. For me the music in these sinks into the background very rapidly. I can recall little about it. The other films were quite different. Gorgeous technicolor music of the most exalted romance and illustrative impact was there in films about Ayr and the Channel Isles. The now seedy and bleached colour images encourage a sort of time-travelling. Images of cows swaying along, of heavy industry (those were the days) and alpine time trials (Shell Film Unit) in the 1950s are ideally, wittily and often luxuriously presented by Arnold. It is intriguing that things like the actual sounds of the huge machines and lumbering livestock were absent. Instead it fell to Arnold to add the aural element in his music score. When it comes to machinery, he had form: the concert piece Machines derived from his 1951 film Report on Steel.

The Pathé film unit produced a feature showing the Royal Family on one of its tours of the Commonwealth. Its cheesy and deferential commentary is one thing, but the music has its own full spectrum splendour. That said, at one point (a state carriage scene on the streets of London) I wondered if Arnold had interpolated one of Bliss’s royal marches. Also fascinating were substantial clips from the black and white TV series War in the Air in high quality stock such that the freeview channel Talking Pictures might like to have a look at re-showing these. That said, the commentary, like so much here, rings strange now. The last film took car races in the Alps as its subject. It ends with a car climbing into the blinding sun. Could Arnold resist that image? Certainly not. The score’s now blowsy full-cream 1950s confidence may now, and possibly then too, be fodder for cynicism but it still has its pull.

I wonder what Arnold would have made of a room full of people watching these pieces of ephemera. In years to come one can imagine students making Sibelius scores out of these films. Certainly there is scope in what we heard for additional English and Scottish dances and even the occasional march.

Event 9—15:30-16:15—Underground 1/2

Arnold: Song Recital

Claire Thompson (soprano); Scott Mitchell (piano)

Soprano Claire Thompson with pianist Scott Mitchell have just released a CD of Arnold’s not extensive song output. They made a cogently thought-through recital from these songs. In a break Scott Mitchell played three of Arnold’s piano pieces from 1943.

This singer has a voice that is clear as a bell, as well as a vivacious delivery and presence. She gives every impression of enjoying the work involved in the faithful shaping of sung words. Arnold’s songs included the “Kensington Gardens” set of nine (to words by Humbert Wolfe). This was the premiere of the complete cycle. These miniatures about plants, flowers, trees, shrubs and times of the day are attractive and concentrated songs. They are sentimentally centred but are not to be taken for granted, and they have unexpected depths. Next time someone asks us for a list of composers who have set Wolfe’s once popular now démodé poetry, we will be able to add Arnold’s name to Holst’s before we run out of ideas. We also heard three John Donne songs to poems that are more directly spoken than his metaphysical masterpieces. An extended sequence of songs for a musical Purple Dust did not plumb the depths. Its sentimentality reminded me of Anthony Burgess’s Joyce musical, The Blooms of Dublin. Well, if we can have Shostakovich’s Cheryomushki, I cannot see why we should not have revived productions of both the Burgess and Arnold’s Sean O’Casey musical. One last comment: I can well understand the singer’s enthusiasm for Arnold’s song Beauty Wood (words by the composer’s sister) with its words “Pan pipes upon my grave”. Its pagan-idyllic message recalls the supernatural dimensions of yesterday’s Mr Pye’s Island.

Scott Mitchell played three Arnold piano pieces from the 1940s: The Prelude with its blue note shimmer, the rose-wreathed Romance and the Gallic-accented Lament.

Arnold’s setting of words (Song of Accounting Periods) from a now long-gone Finance Act is one of this singer’s party-pieces delivered with arch seriousness. It raised eyebrows while the piano tremolos away. I wonder if this was a souvenir of some spat Arnold had with the Inland Revenue.

Later that afternoon, we heard a singer student at the Malcolm Arnold Academy in three Ariel songs drawn out of a stage production of The Tempest. They are not on the Claire Thompson CD but are well worth knowing. They were first sung by a very young Robert Hardy.

Event 10—17:00—Underground 1/2

Arnold – Concertino for Recorder and strings; Concertino for Flute and strings; Concertino for Oboe and strings; Symphony for Strings

Amy Roberts (oboe); Laura Davies (flute); Oscar Gormley (recorder)

Janus Ensemble/Ben Palmer

One of my earliest formative experiences with Arnold was hearing and repeatedly playing back the Oboe Concerto, parts of which still haunt me. Here were three wind concertinos arranged by third parties (Philip Lane, David Ellis and Roger Steptoe) from the composer’s stock of sonatinas, such is the appetite for works of this quality and sense of time. He wrote a lot but just not enough for many of us. All three were played with mordant skill and rounded contours. The oboe work is typically sprightly with steady rolling melody. This is coupled with a consciousness that in this garden there are wild and uncertain things in the shadowed corners. Both the flute and recorder works tended towards a less expansive and accommodating romantic spirit. This was felt particularly in the orchestral “voice”. Speaking of which, the long Symphony for Strings spoke with a Bartók-like severity. No reason why it should be anything else but this is not a natural companion to the big works for strings by Bliss or Howells. It has a more international tone—the sort of thing you hear in the symphonic string works of two other composers for film, Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann.

Event 11—18:30—Underground 4

Malcolm Arnold Academy Students/Simon Toyne

Arnold’s Concert Piece for percussionists and piano was commissioned by James Blades. This fantastic little piece was really well played by the MA academy students as the conclusion to an all-Arnold concert. Simon Toyne presided and conducted the Concert Piece. Before that came a selection of Arnold’s early works played by the Academy’s young students. Every work had interest and was thoughtfully and even brilliantly put across. Of this selection what stood out were three songs from The Tempest for a theatre production in 1956. These light and insubstantial-as-air songs, sung by young soprano Elsie Ward, were not just charming but also in their setting of familiar words, engaging. The other highlight among many was a group of three piano pieces played with insights and subtlety by Joseph Hirst. He played these delicate stems with complete and gentle confidence. Day Dreams (1938), reeking of the worlds of Cyril Scott and Billy Mayerl, was followed by two pieces, a sensitively rounded Prelude and a gently done Romance. We had heard the last two at the hands of Scott Mitchell earlier that afternoon. All the musicians achieved miracles small and large in a far from ideal concert space—good training for a life in music—and all had something of value to offer not just to family and friends present but also to Arnold’s legion of admirers.

Event 12-19:30—Auditorium—Gala Concert

Arta Arnicane (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/John Gibbons

Arnold – Bridge over the River Kwai—March (1957); Symphony No. 5 (1961); The Heroes of Telemark—Suite (1965) (premiere)

Grieg – Piano Concerto

Fresh from their Snape Maltings performance of the Fourth Symphony by William Alwyn (another Northamptonian), the Royal Philharmonic and John Gibbons—who made good use of between item time to give his usual vivid spoken introductions—were the celebrants at the Festival’s full-flavoured gala summit.

The concert opened with the ever-cheery march from Bridge on the River Kwai. It was welcomed but for me its rum-ti-tum conventionality was shallow and not just beside Arnold’s great Fifth Symphony which came next. In this magnificent symphony the scar tissue of tragedy is there but has not hardened into callous. A luminous beauty beams out through the lesions left by the deaths of one family member and three friends. The first movement seemed fast. I found myself inwardly rebelling against this but everything else was just-so … and more. The final bell-chimes rang true back to the opening of a work that has the passage of time, sad and triumphant, as one of its less obvious themes—that and the transient unbearable sweetness of the nostalgic “musicbox” passages in the first movement. The sovereign rhythmic work of the horns, especially in the last two movements, was one of those stand-out memories of the concert. Then again, so was the sound of the RPO’s strings especially the violins whose shapely and simultaneously tender yet voluptuous tone registered magnificently.

Young Latvian pianist and multiple competition winner, Arta Arnicane, was the soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Arnicane combined poise and excitement. Her powerhouse attention to rhythmic detail made for reward after reward. Amongst the more understated but telling moments was the solo between the French horn principal and Arnicane. She has previously played the Alwyn Second Piano Concerto with John Gibbons.

After a key Norwegian work by the great Norwegian composer, The Heroes of Telemark made a fitting place in the programme with its action taking place in Norway. John Gibbons had made a suite—continuous without section breaks. This he made painstakingly from the soundtrack. It makes for a cracking 20-minute slice of British movie splendour. It is no discredit to Arnold that he appears to have borrowed the opening sentence of the credits music from a film made in black and white five years earlier, A Hill in Korea (Michael Caine’s debut). Arnold’s irresistible and swarthily indomitable march for the black and white Korea film was mined for the Telemark score. Arnold’s brusque, humane and touching nobilmente brooks little in the way of competition.

This was the first-ever performance of the Suite in a concert hall, and was welcome for its vivid representation of a key score. There was enough new Arnold here, captured from the soundtrack, to make this a welcome option for anyone wanting to ring the changes on the concert library of Arnold’s film music. The music comes complete with whistling and la-la-la-ing from the orchestra and tumultuous explosions, heartbeat-high marches and love music. The latter is a borrowed and exultant fugitive from the Fifth Symphony. The RPO horns had a beano and so did we. It all spelt success and a great wave of applause.

Rob Barnett

For more about the Malcolm Arnold Festival click here.

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