The opening piece in tonight's programme was the 'Three
Shanties for Wind Quintet' Op.4 (1943) These are the most popular
of Arnold's chamber output. They were originally designed for the amusement
of the composer's colleagues in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Cunningly
scored for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn & Bassoon, these three 'bagatelles'
exhibit all the characteristics of exuberance, inventiveness and sheer
technical competence that we have come to expect from Sir Malcolm. We
must never forget that he was a former instrumentalist himself. Famous
tunes abound in various guises. 'What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor,'
'Boney was a Warrior' and 'Johnny came down to Hilo.' The tunes are
not repeated and repeated again louder (à la Constant Lambert)
but are subject to all kinds of variation and distortions. There is
an ongoing shift of moods and timbres and this was reflected in the
playing. In many ways this early Arnold is the 'type' for much of his
'popular' repertoire that was to infuriate and entrance so many people.
In the last movement the humour does come through; the ending certainly
made me smile. The Opus 4 was played by the Galliard Ensemble who did
a good job of getting the concert off to a fine start.
The Oboe Sonatina Op.28 (1952) is a somewhat
disingenuous title for this piece. The word 'sonatina' has come to mean
a small, inconsequential piece associated with teaching. Of course there
are many examples where this rule of thumb is proved false. For example,
think of Maurice Ravel and John Ireland's works of that name works for
piano. There is nothing inconsequential about the work we heard tonight.
Let us just agree with the programme notes and say this piece sounds
like 'a full-bodied sonata in miniature.' It is full of good things.
The tunes are lyrical and well crafted; there is a contrast of musical
styles. All the 'Arnoldian' fingerprints are present. The piano part
is complex and certainly adds more than just accompaniment to this piece.
The work is said to have been inspired by the playing of the famous
oboist, Leon Goossens.
This piece was superbly played by the charismatic Nicholas
Daniel supported by Richard Shaw. Daniel appeared on the stage in a
faintly ridiculous caftan. It was as if he was about to charm a snake
out of a basket in a bazaar straight out of Scheherazade. However, he
charmed the audience with his playing.
There are comparatively few attractive post baroque
pieces for oboe and piano. Let us hope that a few more woodwind soloists
take up this delightful sonatina.
We were privileged to be present for the 'London Premiere
of a short 'waltz' from the Suite Bourgeoisie (1940). It is scored
for flute, oboe and piano. I have not heard any of this suite so tonight's
performance was a rare pleasure. It was written when Malcolm Arnold
was only nineteen years old; it was probably premiered in Northampton
Town Hall in 1940. On Tuesday we were able to detect some emerging characteristics
in the 'Kensington Garden' songs and here in this work we are
also able to discern hints of the style to come. There are some lovely
counterpoints between the solo instruments. It is Sir Malcolm at his
very best. As someone said to me at the interval - "Arnold in a nutshell!"
The playing of this 'light' piece was committed - it would have been
so easy to make fun of it.
We heard three of the Fantasies Op.87, 89 &
90 for solo instrument- for Clarinet, Oboe and Flute. These pieces
were originally composed for the Birmingham International Wind Competition
in 1966. Of course, giving the commission to Sir Malcolm was an inspired
choice. It reveals the facility the composer had of writing music that
was appropriate not only to the didactic requirement but was also musically
attractive. These pieces tested the players' ability to negotiate a
number of styles. We hear passage work, changes of register, neat and
accurate articulation appropriate to the instrument, melodies and complex
scales and arpeggios. All of these fantasies are fragmentary, involved
pieces that seem to defy formal analysis. Yet somehow they work, and
work well. One can only marvel at the skill of both the composer and
players in producing such attractive pieces that have a musical coherence.
'Fantasies' they may be, but each one of them has profound musical logic.
We note that one of the original prize-winners was a certain Mr James
Galway! Furthermore, they were so successful that Arnold produced a
further three settings in 1969 - for Trumpet, Trombone and Tuba.
Tonight’s performances certainly managed to show these
three pieces in an exceptional light. The energy of the Oboe piece with
Nicolas Daniel was amazing. Barnaby Robson made sure that every possible
trick of the clarinet was exploited to the full. And one wondered how
the flautist, Sebastian Bell, fitted in all the notes!
Perhaps the most vital piece played at the two concerts
was the String Quartet No.2 Op.118 (1975). This was composed
during Arnold's Dublin period, which by all accounts was the most depressing
and soul-destroying part of his career. There is little of the typical
Arnold sound; here we find no catchy tunes or popular rhythms. However
one of Arnold's characteristics is present - his tendency to write eclectic
music. Much of this quartet is unrelated to itself. It seems to me to
lack internal unity. It is certainly not cyclic. This piece is dark,
bleak and almost totally negative in its feelings. Often there is a
downright sinister feel to much of this music. This is not to say that
there are no tender moments. The last few bars of the first movement
ease the stress a bit. The slow movement has a long cadenza for the
1st violin. Then we find an Irish jig juxtaposed against
aggressive bi-tonal part writing. This is very much the a 'movement
from hell.' The slow movement is 'dead' sombre - no relief yet from
the intensity of this quartet. Yet it is very beautiful in a strange
sort of way. It is fair to say that in the conclusion of this work we
can see light at the end of the tunnel. Some of this writing is almost
‘summery’ in comparison to what has gone before. The last statement
of the 'big' theme is glorious. However the last pages of this quartet
return to the bleakness of the opening.
This was superbly played by the Maggini String Quartet.
Every detail of this impressive music was expressed with conviction
and understanding. On a lighter note, the quartet wore identical waistcoats
that added a touch of colour to this memorable evening. Sir Malcolm
Arnold's 2nd String Quartet is one of the masterworks of
the genre. It is on a par with Bartok. This work needs to become a regular
part of the repertoire as a matter of urgency.
The Fanfare for Louis was composed in 1970.
It is a short piece for two trumpets, which in the Wigmore Hall acoustic
was ear splitting! It was originally composed for Louis Armstrong's
70th birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall. It is an
unusual piece, which is not necessarily 'jazzy', as its provenance would
suggest. I must confess that it is an ephemeral piece that I do not
need to hear again. It was a difficult piece well played.
The Clarinet Sonatina Op.29 (1951) is one of
my favourite works by Sir Malcolm. The programme notes suggest that
this piece is like a piano reduction of a concerto! Certainly we feel
that there is much more to this work than can be encompassed in the
typical view of a sonatina. There is so much happening in this work.
Arnold uses every conceivable technique in the clarinettist's book.
We hear all the registers being used to full effect. There is brightness,
brilliance and good old-fashioned swagger. Yet the slow movement is
quiet. In many ways it acts as a foil for the two almost outrageous
outer movements. This is great stuff. It was performed with total conviction
and understanding by both the soloist, Barnaby Robson and the accompanist
However, the gem of the night was the Grand Fantasia
Op.973 (c1940), scored for flute, trumpet and piano. This is
an odd combination, yet the sound it made was very much akin to 'Victorian'
music-making around the fireside. It was total fun, total enjoyment
and totally unique. A one off! It is effectively a set of little variations,
which always seems about to go into a tune I know but never quite does.
The trumpet player, Mark Law has a deal of charisma. His playing was
stunning; his use of the various mutes was fascinating. It was a rare
treat. The score is inscribed as having been composed by a certain ‘Mr.
The Quintet for Brass Op.73 (1961) was an excellent
choice with which to conclude the concert. It is scored for two trumpets,
French horn, trombone and tuba. The movements are quite well balanced
- with fun, not so much fun and back to fun again. Here Arnold is composing
for his own family of instruments. And it shows. Every instrument is
given the opportunity to show off - both as solo and in combination
with their other partners. The last movement is a characteristic rondo
that brings the work to an excellent conclusion. This was well played
by the London City Brass Quintet. They got the intonation and the tempi
absolutely correct. This is a great brass sound. The Tuba part was particularly
The great formal event of the evening was the presentation
to Sir Malcolm Arnold of a 'Fellowship' to the British Academy of Composers
and Songwriters. The award was handed over by Sir Tim Rice. There are
only two other fellows in the society - John Barry the film music writer
and the legendary Sir Paul McCartney. It is a tribute to Sir Malcolm
that he has been able to transcend musical boundaries to receive such
an accolade from an organisation that is not normally associated with
This achievement has been totally vindicated in these
two memorable concerts. The audience will long remember this occasion.
They will cherish the superb playing, the stunning music and the elderly
composer modestly accepting the standing ovation.