Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2002 and the recording is still available.

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)
Guitar Concerto Op.67 (1959)
English Dances Op.27 & Op.33 (1950/1951)
Symphony for Brass Instruments Op.123 (1978)
Quintet for Brass Op.73 (1961)
Eduardo Fernández (guitar)
English Chamber Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth (concerto)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (Dances)
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble/Howard Snell, Elgar Howarth
rec. 1954 (Dances); 1970 (Quintet); 1979 (Symphony), 1990 (Concerto)
Decca 468 803-2 [75]

Malcolm Arnold’s two sets of English Dances are certainly – and deservedly – among his most popular works. Adrian Boult’s 1954 recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Arnold’s orchestra) is the earliest one ever available commercially. His was the first recording of any Arnold work I bought as a teenager and I still have my literally worn-out copy of that wonderful Ace of Clubs LP. Boult’s is one of the finest recordings of these beloved pieces (the finest of all is, I believe, that by Arnold and the LPO on Lyrita), and its 1954 sound still wears well.

The Guitar Concerto Op.67 (1959), written for Julian Bream who gave the first performance in Aldeburgh with the Melos Ensemble (they also recorded it for RCA) is an overt tribute to jazz and especially to Django Reinhardt. This is particularly evident in the long slow movement which someone has once described as a script for a Hitchcock thriller. The most remarkable feature of Arnold’s Guitar Concerto is that the composer cleverly eschewed all clichés in his guitar writing, be they Spanish or jazz; and that he approached his task in his own inimitable way. The scoring for small forces is a miracle of economy, clarity and efficiency. This is Arnold at his best and at his most inventive. No wonder that this wonderfully crafted piece has become a favourite.

The Quintet for Brass Op.73 (1961), actually Arnold’s first brass quintet (the Brass Quintet No.2 Op.132 was completed in 1987 and is, to the best of my knowledge, still unrecorded and rarely heard), is also a very popular work that has received many performances and many fine recordings. Arnold’s unerring flair for brass instruments is fully displayed in this attractive piece. Has anyone noticed that the slow movement seems to pay some homage to Holst’s band piece Hammersmith?

However, the substantial Symphony for Brass Instruments Op.123 (1978), written for Philip Jones’ fiftieth birthday, is a quite different piece of music. One might have expected some brilliant display of brass writing, full of Arnold’s hallmarks; but the Symphony for Brass is actually a sombre, bleak work and clearly the product of what has been one of Arnold’s most difficult periods. Though still superbly written for brass ensemble, the music, while still recognisably by Arnold, eschews many easy-way-out solutions. It rather evokes a difficult journey that would reach its ultimate goal in the bleak, unremitting, uncompromising Ninth Symphony. The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble play wonderfully as they also do in the Brass Quintet.

In short, this release is most welcome since this recording of the Symphony for Brass is the only one available so far. It is good too to have Sir Adrian’s wonderful reading of the English Dances back in the catalogue.

Hubert Culot

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