Arnold Commonwealth Christmas Overture Chandos

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) 
Commonwealth Christmas Overture, Op. 64 (1957) 
Clarinet Concerto No. 1, Op. 20 (1948) 
Divertimento No. 2, Op. 24/75 (1950) 
Larch Trees, Op. 3 (1943) 
Philharmonic Concerto, Op. 120 (1976) 
The Padstow Lifeboat, Op. 94a (1967, orch. Philip Lane, 2000) 
Michael Collins (clarinet) 
BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
rec. 2019/22, MediaCity UK Salford, Manchester
Chandos CHAN20152 [69]

Nick Barnard contributed an extensive review of this disc which anyone interested in the music is urged to read. While I can only concur with him on the excellence of the performances and superb recorded sound, most of the works presented here were new to me and my judgments are based on my coming to these works for the first time.

I found the Commonwealth Christmas Overture to be a rather odd duck, but characteristic of the composer’s sense of humour in the juxtaposition of the Christmas celebration music and the calypso band episode in the middle of the piece.  Was Arnold just thumbing his nose at the BBC establishment that commissioned him for its Christmas Day broadcast, or simply providing a “musical beacon of intercultural hope in the wake of the notorious 1958 race riots in Notting Hill,” as Melvyn Cooke indicates in his detailed booklet note?  Arnold also employed the Caribbean instruments in his Fourth Symphony, but there they are integrated in the score rather than acting as a disruption.  In any case, as entertaining as the overture is, I doubt I shall be returning to it anytime soon.

The First Clarinet Concerto, on the other hand, is one of a number of instrumental concertos that Arnold excelled in composing.  Michael Collins, who has recorded the work before, is the expert clarinetist here.  The concerto receives a warm-hearted and virtuosic performance that does not shortchange the more melancholy aspects of the work while doing complete justice to the livelier segments.  It is a pity that Chandos did not include the Concerto No. 2 composed for Benny Goodman and such a fun piece.  That one is available by Collins on a separate CD of British clarinet concertos.   I would clearly have preferred it to the angry Philharmonic Concerto, composed at the time of Arnold’s rather bleak Seventh and Eighth symphonies.  Nevertheless, it is good to have such compositional variety on this disc to demonstrate the many sides of the composer, and both clarinet concertos are available on a single disc by Thea King on an inexpensive Helios CD.

Perhaps the least characteristic here and one totally unknown to me is the tone poem Larch Trees, the earliest piece on the programme.   While Cooke points out similarities to Sibelius and Delius, the work’s harmony is pure Arnold.   I found this rather moody piece, capturing an atmosphere of loneliness, quite fascinating.   It contains beautiful passages for the woodwinds—especially the oboe and flute solos—without trumpets, trombones, or percussion.  As with virtually everything on the disc, Larch Trees receives a splendid account.

The Divertimento No. 2 and the Philharmonic Concerto have similar structures.  Each is in three movements, the Divertimento beginning with a Fanfare and the Philharmonic Concerto, an Intrada.   These are followed by a slow movement, labelled Nocturne in the former and Aria in the latter.  The works both end with chaconnes.  There the similarities end, though Cooke sees the Philharmonic Concerto as virtually Arnold’s third divertimento.  I find there is little diverting about it unlike the actual Divertimento No. 2.  That work with its brass fanfare, haunting slow movement, and regal finale stays long in the memory.  It is a happy, infectious piece.  The Philharmonic Concerto is much darker and dissonant.  The middle movement, Aria, contains a pensive viola solo that creates a rather desolate atmosphere.  Arnold gives the listener some respite in the middle of this movement, employing a more romantic theme that builds to a trombone solo again changing the mood to darkness.   The finale begins violently with loud brass unison chords and timpani whacks.  There are some interesting orchestral effects and a demented waltz before the work ends loudly by the full orchestra with its percussion battery.  Both these pieces receive terrific performances and the sound leaves nothing to be desired.

The disc concludes with a rousing march, The Padstow Lifeboat, as orchestrated by Phillip Lane from Arnold’s original band piece.  This displays Arnold at his most ebullient and humourous.    The interruption of the “fog horn” on the horns is hilarious, especially as played in a different key from the rest of the orchestra.  I have not heard the original, but will have to soon owing to Arnold’s expertise in music for brass band.

To sum up, this disc should nicely fill a gap in one’s Malcolm Arnold collection.  Most of the works here have not been recorded all that often and the Clarinet Concerto No. 1 is always great to have in such a wonderful account.  Chandos has upheld its reputation for high-quality products here with substantial notes on the works and a cover photograph of the lifeboat that inspired Arnold.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: Nick Barnard (January 2023)

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music