Michael Collins clarinet
BBC Philharmonic
Rumon Gamba

CHAN 20152

This is an intriguing programme of orchestral music by Arnold, with examples of his work chosen from four decades of his career and offers some light-hearted offerings alongside weightier material.

Larch Trees (1943) was his second orchestral work and for Arnold it is rather restrained.  It is a short tone poem for small orchestra based on a visit to Yorkshire.  It has never been a popular work, but its première was heard by John Hollingsworth who saw Arnold’s potential as a film composer, and the rest is history. Shades of Delius come to mind coloured with jazz inflections. The phrasing of the strings is superb while the wind solos are beautifully yet enigmatically shaped. 

The Clarinet Concerto No.1 was written for Jack Thurston and premiered by him in 1948. It contains, as do many of his works from this period, an aural working out of stylistic problems. Here we hear strains of Bartok rubbing shoulders with popular elements, it could not have been written by anyone else. The stylistic changes can often make this work, and others from this period, seem disjointed, but here Mr Gamba, pulls the work together in most convincing way. Mr Collins likewise navigates these challenges with an easy brilliance making this undoubtedly the finest performance I have heard.

Yehudi Menuhin told me that he could always recognise Arnold’s music by its ‘vigour’, and there is no more vigorous work than The Commonwealth Christmas Overture (1957). It was commissioned by the BBC for a film Royal Prologue Crown and Commonwealth, with narration by Laurence Olivier, which preceded the late Queen’s first televised Christmas broadcast.  Its style will be apparent to those familiar with travelogues of the period, celebratory, grandiose, and memorable. Local colour is provided by a calypso style section with electric guitar and bongos playing a barely disguised version of God Save The Queen.  The orchestra sound to be enjoying themselves and Mr Gamba gets them to phrase this joyous music with great panache and rhythmic drive, no dovetailed entry out of place.

As Dame Ruth Railton noted in her autobiography, Sir Malcolm was central to the development of the National Youth Orchestra, something which has been forgotten over the years as they now never programme any of his music. The Divertimento No. 2 (1950) was written for their first European tour and was perfect for their abilities at the time.  It is based on memorable material brilliantly and gratefully orchestrated for the young players.  The type of music no one writes anymore and more’s the pity. These advanced players throw it off with great ease but also with a great sense of fun.

The Philharmonic Concerto was commissioned for the LPO American Bicentennial tour. Bernard Haitink, who conducted the première at the Royal Festival Hall was no fan of the work, though on the tour it proved very popular with audiences.  It was written in the tumultuous years leading up to Arnold’s catastrophic nervous breakdown.  In a similar vein to the 7th Symphony, it utilises a sustained level of dissonance not seen in Arnold’s previous music. The outer movements are dynamic, violent even while the slow movement, often the key to this composer’s work, is heartfelt and tragic with one of his most exquisite melodies. Arnold wrote that he wanted to celebrate the Bicentennial ‘with as much brilliance as I can muster’ and even by his standards the orchestration is brilliant. All of the instruments get to shine through. and the final chacony ending in a blaze of celebratory triumph.  In the 1980s Ted Downes regularly performed this work with this orchestra and that was my gold standard. I doubt any of these players are from that time, but this is as good as those performances, better even.  It is carefully fashioned; the prominent harp part is never lost in the overall texture, even when pitted against the percussion. Arnold’s rare use of a cor anglais is clearly heard, the engineers have done a sterling job in delivering a realistic concert environment.

The Padstow Lifeboat which ends the disc is one of the great 20th century marches, probably the last of its ilk to have entered the standard repertory.  It was pitch perfect for the event for which it was commissioned the launch, in 1968, of the eponymous lifeboat.  This version is an expert arrangement by Philip Lane. The strings throughout this disc are magnificent and here in the trio section milk the tune for all it is worth.

The recording was made in 2019 and the late release is probably down to Covid. In any case we are lucky to have it, it is truly splendid, aurally, technically and musically, and all involved are on great form. Mr Gamba really is a magnificent conductor, he brings great energy and rhythmic precision to his performances, and no one currently conducts Arnold as well as him. I realise I have used words like ‘aplomb’ and ‘panache’, well, the players sound to be really enjoying themselves, and what better way to brighten a dark New Year.

Review by Paul RW Jackson