ARNOLD: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (Andrew Penny/ Ireland National Symphony Orchestra/ Tim Handley) (Naxos: 8.552000)
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Malcolm Arnold (b.1921)
Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6
Malcolm Arnold was born in 1921 in Northampton, where his father was a well-to-do shoe manufacturer. There was music in the family, both from his father and from his mother, a descendant of a former Master of the Chapel Royal. Instead of the usual period at a public school, he was educated privately at home. As a twelve-year-old he found a new interest in the trumpet and in jazz after hearing Louis Armstrong, and three years later he was able to study the instrument in London under Ernest Hall, subsequently winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where his composition teacher was Gordon Jacob. Two years later he left the College to join the London Philharmonic Orchestra as second trumpet. Meanwhile he had won a composition prize for a one-movement string quartet. It was as an orchestral player that he was able to explore the wider orchestral repertoire, in particular the symphonies of Mahler.
Early in the 1939-45 war Arnold was a conscientious objector, in common with a number of other leading musicians. He was allowed to continue his work as an orchestral player, taking the position of first trumpet in the London Philharmonic in 1943. In the same year, however, he volunteered for military service, but was discharged after shooting himself in the foot, playing, thereafter, second trumpet to his teacher Ernest Hall in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and then rejoining the London Philharmonic, where he served as principal trumpet until 1948. During these years he had continued to work as a composer, with a series of successful orchestral compositions, as well as a variety of chamber music.
Since 1948 Malcolm Arnold has earned his living as a composer. In the 1960s he settled in Cornwall, where he became closely involved with the musical activities of the county. In 1972 he moved to Dublin, his home for the next five years, and then, in 1977, to Norfolk. Over the years his work has been much in demand for film scores, of which he has written some eighty. He has written concertos for an amazing variety of instruments, nine numbered symphonies, sinfoniettas, concert overtures and other orchestral works. His chamber music is equally varied and there is a set of works for solo wind and other instruments, aptly meeting the demands of competitive as of solo recital performance.
In style Malcolm Arnold has a command of popular idiom and this may have suggested to some an unfavourable identification with the world of light music. He is, in fact, a composer of considerable stature, technically assured, fluent and prolific, providing music that gives pleasure, but also music that may have a more sombre side, work that may be lyrical and tuneful, or even astringent and harsh in its revelations. Donald Mitchell has compared Arnold, illuminatingly, with Dickens, both of them great entertainers but both well aware of the human predicament, unsettlingly revealed, as he points out, in the remarkable series of symphonies.
The decade 1955-65 was a prolific one for Malcolm. Arnold Along with dozens of film scores came a steady output of orchestral and chamber works, including his Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. The Third Symphony, written in 1957, had inferred popular musical elements which the Fourth, completed in 1960, was to make explicit; the Fifth Symphony of the following year does not so much close a trilogy as provide a canvas on which the opposing aspects of Arnolds symphonism can seek resolution of their inherent conflict. It is in this light that Arnolds comment, in the programme for the Cheltenham première of the Fifth Symphony, that there were so many things I felt still needed to be said musically, should surely be read.
No one should be fooled by the outwardly orthodox four-movement framework of the Fifth Symphony. The opening Tempestuoso begins with a questioning oboe theme, answered by an ominous tolling motion in brass and tubular bells. A delectable carillon motif calms the atmosphere, then strings take up the oboe theme in fatalistic tones. The tolling now forms a backdrop for a purposeful intensification, leading to a brutal climax. The atmosphere stills in an equivocal mood and a sequence of individual wind entries clouds the direction of the movement, until a jagged outburst indicates a reprise. A wistful horn idea marks a passing tribute to Dennis Brain, one of numerous friends and colleagues commemorated in this work. Brass hammer out an impassioned variant of the tolling motion, collapsing to leave strings and chimes in musing uncertainty.
The Andante con moto is perhaps Arnolds most Mahlerian confession. The richly harmonized opening theme, hushed on strings, is all the more affecting for its rhythmic stability. A contrasting flute idea increases the musics pathos, to which upper strings lend a touch of Hollywood languor. The oboe tenderly takes up the main theme, before violins introduce a more angular and agitated mood. The music builds inexorably, culminating in an outburst of grinding dissonance that, on cutting out abruptly, leaves the music groping uncertainly for a lifeline. This comes about with the magical restatement of the flute melody, soothing the emotions and preparing for the return of the opening theme. Its restatement brings the movement to a peaceful close.
The scherzo, marked Con fuoco, is one such as only Arnold could have carried off. The nagging opening gesture prefaces a series of nonchalant motifs over a walking bass-line, merging into an aggressive fugato texture, and falling away just as quickly. The trio is a telling incorporation of 1950s pop music into the symphonic argument, given substance by the constantly changing rhythm and instrumentation. The scherzo resumes its wayward course, only to be interrupted by a raucous brass outburst, driving the movement to a hectic conclusion.
The Risoluto finale has the challenge of steering the conflicting impulses of the symphony through to a viable outcome, which it does by meeting them head on. The opening discords, complemented by a brazen tattoo on piccolos, immediately indicate the combative approach. A tortuous string theme does little to alleviate tension, the movement striding to its culmination in the return of the second movements big tune. Yet the overbearing nature of its impact is to be its own undermining: the restatement culminates on a stark E minor triad, held on by pianissimo strings replete with bells from the opening of the symphony. Three distant Es on cellos and basses seal the tragic outcome of the work. Arnold has given us a brilliantly successful study in aspiration and failure.
It was not surprising that seven years should pass before Arnold essayed another symphony. Looking back from our present perspective, it is ironic that the opening-up of musical styles in the 1960s should coincide with Arnolds music growing severer and more troubled. The jazz influences in the opening Energico of the Sixth Symphony are chosen not for their accessibility, but for their making more fluid Arnolds melodic writing. Tense, anticipatory gestures, over an irregular bass pattern, set the tone for a movement of unrelieved anxiety. A wide-spanned theme rises up in the strings, only to be attacked by strident off-beat brass and timpani. The cross-cutting of thematic and rhythmic fragments is as resourceful as it is unsettling, while tension never wavers. A potent double crescendo presages the return of the string theme, before the quizzical opening texture closes proceedings in inscrutable fashion.
The Lento is Arnolds most searching take on pop idioms. Not that t