Arnold Wind Chamber Music Naxos

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2007 and the recording is still available.

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)
Wind Chamber Music
East Winds
rec. 2006, Potton Hall, UK
Naxos 8.570294 [76]

Goodness me, there has been some vitriol spouted about the music of Sir Malcolm Arnold over the years, a composer who divides opinion like few others. Music writer Mark Morris in A Guide to 20th Century Composers, writes, “Malcolm Arnold is something of an anomaly in modern English music: a prolific, sometimes brilliant but often depressingly banal composer totally out of touch with the developments of the second half of the 20th Century.”

The BBC hierarchy for many years seemed to ignore Arnold’s music. People were convinced that Sir William Glock, then BBC Controller of Music was pursuing a vendetta against him and that his music had been blacklisted. The influential Sir John Drummond who was BBC Controller of Music 1985-92; BBC Radio 3 Controller 1987-92 and Director of the BBC Proms Concerts 1986-95 clearly thought that Arnold’s music was not the way forward. Sir John informed me in his own inimitable way how he believed that Boulez, Henze (his friend) and Birtwistle were today’s masters and that he could not convince himself that Arnold was in the same league. 

The current resurgence in interest in Sir Malcolm’s music is partly down to the celebrations that were being planned for his forthcoming eighty-fifth birthday and the usual phenomenon of interest that follows shortly after the death of a composer; but not exclusively so. In the last decade or so the tide seems to have been turning in favour of Sir Malcolm’s music with arguably a backlash against those fashionable progressive and modernist composers for whom he had been shunned. So for some, Arnold’s music of infectious melody and madcap hilarity had become passé, but for his loyal band of supporters his love of communicating sheer entertainment to the listener remained an enduring passion.

Few composers have Arnold’s innate ability for effortlessly conveying that splendid blend of wacky humour and nervous anxiety; slapstick and intense pain, infectious melody and deep passion, spirited rhythms and potent drama. Many readers will be aware of the deep personal difficulties in Arnold’s often troubled life and with his highly melodic, dance influenced and wit infused music, tears, pain and anguish are never far away. A month or two ago in a review of a Franz Liszt disc I recall writing, “the contrasting demands of Liszt’s inconsistent genius, with writing that is brilliant one minute and bordering on the vulgar the next.” Whilst not placing Arnold in the same elevated league as Liszt the same sentiments could be said to apply to the frequently uneven quality of Arnold’s music.      

This is a valuable release from Naxos for Arnold collectors as it comprises twelve wind chamber scores, five of which are claimed to be world premiere recordings. Sir Malcolm wrote a large body of works for wind instruments and the label will require more than this single release to encompass all his compositions. I look forward to a further issue from these excellent performers of the remaining wind works; such as the Trevelyan Suite, Op. 96; Quintet for flute, violin, viola, horn and bassoon, Op. 7; Trio for flute, viola and piano, Op 6 et al.    

The first score on the release is the Wind Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op.2. Arnold composed the score in 1943 for his friends in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the work was lost for over sixty years. It was only after the death of clarinettist Stephen Walters, who played in the first performance, that the score and parts were discovered in his possessions. In the hands of East Winds the good humoured Allegro has a jazzy feel with lots of hectic activity and there is a spiky, almost repetitive quality to the brief Scherzo. Marked Alla Marcia the finale contains sardonic marching rhythms and a pseudo bugle reveille, where it seems likely that Arnold is parodying the brutality of the Second World War.

Arnold wrote a significant amount of music that featured the clarinet and the Divertimento for 2 Clarinets, Op. 135 from 1988 is the most recent work on this release. For some unknown reason the six movements have been spread across the release to, “form a series of interludes.” It is hard to fault clarinettists Victoria Soames Samek and Allison Rosser who provide their best endeavours in this rather unmemorable and uneventful score. Notable is the short third movement Vivace contains virtuosic playing of reckless abandon. Marked Lento the fourth movement appears to be divided into two sections; the first a relaxing section, followed by a perky and brisk second. Of reasonable interest is the fifth movement, another Vivace, thatpursues an agitated mood.          

Dream City was originally a piano piece composed by the teenage Arnold on Christmas Eve in 1938 whilst a pupil at the Royal College of Music. Paul Harris has arranged the brief piano score for wind quintet that I assume employs the instrumentation of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The confident players of East Winds provide a tender and relaxing interpretation of this melodic score. 

The year 1953 was an extremely busy and highly productive year for Arnold. Based on the original 1915 stage comedy by Harold Brighouse, Hobson’s Choice staring Charles Laughton and John Mills, and directed by David Lean was one of several film scores he wrote that year. The Hobson’s ChoiceOverture has been arranged by Uwe Radok for wind octet, it seems for pairs of oboes, clarinets, French horns and bassoons. Prominent throughout is the jaunty theme that seems to mimic Charlie Chaplin’s comical bow-legged dance-walk.

The Grand Fantasia was composed in 1940 and is a most impressive work in which Arnold recycles themes from his various film scores. Although no expert on Arnold’s film scores I keep hearing themes from the series of St. Trinian’s films, the fictional girls school, conceived by cartoonist Ronald Searle. Although we are not told the Grand Fantasia is a trio scored for flute, clarinet and piano. Using contrasting tempi the work is an eclectic blend of various musical styles. A theme reminiscent to that used to represent St. Trinian’s spiv Flash Harry and played on a pseudo pub piano is first heard at 2:22-2:40; followed by tango infused music at 4:19-5:32; then a jazzy clarinet solo played by Victoria Soames Samek at 5:41-6:03 and 6:42-7:05 and fairground fun and frolics at 7:45-8:20.          

Composed in 1940 the score titled Overture was probably intended as an opening movement of a larger work. We are not informed of the original instrumentation but here Uwe Radok has made a wind octet arrangement it seems for pairs of oboes, clarinets, French horns and bassoons. Written in the war years the Overture proves to be an agitated and frenetic work with lots of aggression and warlike chords and melodies.  

Arnold wrote his Suite Bourgeoise for flute, clarinet and piano, a masterwork of the genre, in the early war years around 1939. Evidently the score was lost for fifty or so years and only came to light again in 1996. The five movement work commences with a hot and sultry Prelude containing a sunny Mediterranean feel, followed by the warm and lyrical Tango subtitled ‘Elaine’ that concludes in a pastoral vein. I found the central movement titled Dance (censored), originally called Whorehouse, evocative of the bright lights of a bustling city scene and the passionate Ballad has a cocktail bar feel to the piano writing. The Suite Bourgeoise concludes with an attractive movement titled Valse (Ugo) of swirling, good humoured music.     

I heard the Suite Bourgeoise superbly performed in recital last year at my local music society by the ensemble Intriplicate in an arrangement of fluteoboe and piano.Intriplicate are a young Manchester-based trio formed in 2001, comprising flautist Claire Fillhart, oboist Sally Richardson and Claire Dunham on piano. A delightful recording of the Suite Bourgeoise is the recently released performance from flutist Nancy Ruffer, oboist John Anderson and Helen Crayford on piano. Recorded in 2006 at Potton Hall, Suffolk this highly desirable release of ‘British Music for flute, oboe and piano’is available on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7181 (c/w Eugène Goossens Pastorale et Arlequinade; Dring Trio; Musgrave Impromptu for flute and oboe; Bennett Sounds and Sweet Aires: McGuire Three Dialogues for flute and oboe: Samuel Shadow Dance).

The Scherzetto arranged here for clarinet and piano began its life as part of the 1954 comedy film score You Know What Sailors Are featuring Donald Sinden and Michael Hordern. In this excellent performance from Victoria Soames Samek and pianist Paul Chilvers I experienced the Scherzetto as a vibrant score with an exceptionally easygoing and cheerful nature.

The Fantasy for solo clarinet, Op. 87 was composed in 1966 as a test piece for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra International Wind Competition. Soloist Victoria Soames Samek plays the Clarinet Fantasy with accomplishment in what proves to be a reasonably appealing work that blends agreeable melody and occasional quirky rhythms with realistically technical difficulty for the clarinet.

The miniature Fantasy for flute and clarinet was composed as a present for his children Katharine and Robert to play together. Written in the early 1960s, a successful time for Arnold, who had a few years previously in 1957 been awarded an Oscar for best music score for the David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Similarities to the Double Fantasy have been identified to the title music from his contemporaneous score to Bryan Forbes’s 1961 film Whistle Down the Wind. This is superb woodwind writing from Arnold with a haunting main theme played by flautist Judith Treggor against Victoria Soames Samek’s equally memorable bass line.

Cast in six short movements the Divertimento for flute, oboe and clarinet, Op. 37 was composed by Arnold for his friends Richard Adeney; Sidney Sutcliffe and Stephen Walters who gave the premiere of the work. In 1952, the time of his successful score to the David Lean film The Sound Barrier,Arnold was at the height of his compositional powers and the Woodwind trio reveals itself as a classic example of the genre.I found the opening movement an Allegro energico witty and melodic, the Languido sad and yearning that grows in intensity with a rumbustious central Vivace. The Andantino is a passionate and tender piece, the Allegretto semplice has a fanfare evocative of a Middle-Age jousting competition and I enjoyed the nostalgic seriousness of the final movement Piacevole

With the fear of sounding repetitive yet another masterwork is the 3 Shanties for Wind Quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. 4; Arnold’s most frequently performed wind score. The 3 Shanties was composed in 1943 and first performed by the wind quintet of the London Philharmonic Orchestra during a lunchtime shift in the strange surroundings of an aircraft hangar at Filton Aerodrome, Bristol.

Each of the three movements uses a traditional shanty: the first utilises What shall we do with the drunken sailor?, the second Boney was a warrior and the third uses Johnny come down to Hilo. The outer movements leave the shanties at several points, and in the opening Allegro con brio we hear an Argentine tango; what sounds like a Scottish reel and a Hillbilly hoedown. Arnold takes a rest in the central Allegretto semplice which is slow and relaxing. The concluding Allegro vivace is rhythmic and scampering and includes a waltz and a bossa nova.

The 3 Shanties for Wind Quintet is a popular chamber work and there are a few versions available in the catalogues. I note that the Nash Ensemble has recorded the 3 Shanties on their all Arnold disc titled ‘Chamber Music Volume 3’ on Hyperion Helios CDH55073. In addition clarinettist Emma Johnson on her disc Arnold ‘Clarinet Works’ has also recorded the 3 Shanties on ASV CDDCA922.

The five musicians of East Winds together with their guest players perform Arnold’s wind chamber music with fine accomplishment throughout. It is hard to find fault with these fresh and engaging interpretations that have the spontaneous feel of a live performance. The timbre of the instruments is very well captured by the Naxos engineers with only the barest amount of fierceness from the horn. Those looking for a recording of Arnold’s wind chamber music have no need to look elsewhere. 

Carelessly some of the composition dates are not mentioned in the booklet notes. One has to deduce the scoring of the Wind Quintets, Op.2 and Op. 4 and there is no information whatsoever about the instrumentation of the Grand Fantasia. Much of this essential information can be obtained from the Malcolm Arnold website.

On this Naxos release Sir Malcolm is in his element with these excellently performed wind chamber scores and I was with him all the way.

Michael Cookson

I wish to emphasise that the Suite Bourgeoise is performed here by the combination of flute, oboe and piano (the booklet notes erroneously list the scoring as being for flute, clarinet and piano).

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Wind Quintet, Op.2 (1943) [12:01]
Duo for 2 clarinets, Op. 135, Divertimento (1988)
Dream City (1938) (arr. Paul Harris for wind quintet) [2:58]
Hobson’s Choice: Overture (1953) (arr. Uwe Radok for wind octet) [3:30]
Grand Fantasia for flute, clarinet and piano (1940) [10:03]
Overture (1940) (arr. Uwe Radok for wind octet) [3:22]
Suite Bourgeoise for flute, clarinet and piano (c. 1939) [12:05]
Scherzetto (arr. for clarinet and piano from film score You Know What Sailors Are) (1953) [2:44]
Fantasy for solo clarinet, Op. 87 (1966) [4:05]
Fantasy for flute and clarinet (c. 1960s) [1:30]
Divertimento for flute, oboe and clarinet, Op. 37 (c. 1952) [9:05]
3 Shanties for wind quintet, Op. 4 (1943) [6:57]

Judith Treggor (flute); Joseph Sanders (oboe); Victoria Soames Samek (clarinet); Jonathan Hassan (French horn); Lizbeth Elliott (bassoon)) Paul Chilvers (piano); Veda Lin (second oboe); Allison Rosser (second clarinet); Duncan Fuller (second French horn); Lauren Barr (second bassoon)