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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD

The Chamber Music of Malcolm Arnold - 3
Quintet for Flute, Violin, Viola, Horn and Bassoon Opus 7 (1944)
Duo for Flute and Viola Opus 10 (1946)
Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet Opus 37 (1952)
Oboe Quartet Opus 61 (1957)
Flute Sonata Opus 121 (1977)
Three Shanties for Wind Quintet Opus 4 (1943)
The Nash Ensemble
Rec 14/18 December 1984
HYPERION Helios CDH55073 [63:55]


Malcolm Arnold's Chamber music is 'terra incognita' -at least it is for the majority of music lovers. Even those who enjoy Arnold's diverse styles are most likely to know the English, Welsh & Scottish Dances, Tam o' Shanter and the Piano Concerto for Three Hands.

Yet it is in the chamber music where we can fully appreciate the great variety of "styles, moods and forms" which Arnold is able to utilise. Here everything is encompassed - from the usual 'jaunty' tunes through jazz to harshly 'neo-classical' constructions. Furthermore, these chamber works are full of unusual combinations of instruments. This resulted from his friendship with a number of instrumentalists and Arnold's desire to write 'something' for them or vice versa.

Hyperion have re-released three CDs of chamber music to coincide with the Arnold Eightieth Birthday Celebrations. They were originally recorded by the Nash Ensemble in 1984 and released in 1988. These originals have gradually been disappearing from the shelves - only recently I found Volume 2 available as 'remainder' in Tower Records in Piccadilly. On a personal note - I purchased my set as cassette tapes in 1989 - and have only now managed to replace all three with CDs. Volume 3 always managed to elude my grasp!

The last of these three discs contains a number of works ranging over some 34 years of the composer's writing career. From the 'wartime' Three Shanties for Wind Quintet of 1943 (so incongruously first performed in a hangar at Filton Aerodrome near Bristol) through to the Flute Sonata of 1977 specially composed for James Galway.

There are two fundamental views on Arnold's music. Firstly there is the school of thought which denies integrity to the composer on account of his enthusiasm for popular idioms. His ability to utilise everything from 'pure' Haydn right down the line to 'Sambas and Rumbas' is seen as being crass. Then there is the other school of thought that is quite frankly disappointed that he wrote anything other than 'pot- boilers'.

To both of these groups a work like the Ninth Symphony would be a closed book. Group One never deigning to listen to it and Group Two not finding 'pop' references to the last movement of the Piano Concerto for Three Hands or the 'Big' tune from the '4th ' Symphony.

There is no denying that Arnold was an eclectic composer. These three CDs firmly prove this point.

First of all a few words about the programme and the playing. CD 3 is really dedicated to 'wind' resources - only one of the pieces given here has a piano accompaniment. The playing is superb. With such diversity of styles and instrumental combinations it would have been easy for the articulation and playing to be uneven. This is not the case.

The programme notes are totally adequate, however those of us who own Hugo Cole's book on Arnold (1989) will recognise 'word for word' extracts!

The first piece on this disc (chronologically speaking) is the 'Three Shanties for Wind Quintet'. These are possibly the most popular of Arnold's chamber output.

These pieces were originally designed for the amusement of the composer's colleagues in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. They are scored for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon. These three pieces exhibit all the characteristics of exuberance, inventiveness and sheer technical competence that we have come to expect from a composer who was a former instrumentalist. 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 (à la Constant Lambert) but are subject to all kinds of distortions. Are Latin American rhythms already present? In many ways this early Arnold is the 'type' for much of his 'popular' repertoire which was to infuriate and entrance so many people.

The Quintet for Flute, Violin, Viola, Horn and Bassoon is a slightly more substantial offering. Hugo Cole in his book on Malcolm Arnold points up the similarity in style to Haydn. There is no great development of ideas, no profound structural principle. Instead the interest lies in the ever-changing, ever-developing dialogue between the players. It is possible to make what may seem unpromising themes full of interest. The Quintet has three contrasting movements with the Allegretto Languido providing a 'foursquare' tune in the true 'Arnoldian' style.

The Duo for Flute is an interesting piece. It is somewhat deeper than the preceding works. This piece has its sadder or perhaps more reflective moments. It is a 'conversation piece' through and through. Thematic development is paramount. One idea leads into another - with the usual number of seeming digressions- some even becoming quite intense! Note the short and catchy tune at the commencement of the last movement. It is used by the composer and then discarded. Once again there are 'fingerprints' of the popular Arnold -however we are in a frankly neo-classical world.

My own personal favourite piece on this CD is the Divertimento for Flute, Oboe & Clarinet. This is a series of six character pieces or perhaps bagatelles. The beauty of this piece is the unity of these seemingly contrasting miniatures. No doubt very humorous, these pieces have a degree of deeper thought about them, which belies first hearing. It is one of those works where we are left wishing they would go on so much longer! The first few bars of the first movement have the 'English Dance' imprint well and truly in place.

The Oboe Quartet of 1957 is dedicated to Leon Goossens. This great artist had already been the dedicatee of the Oboe Concerto Opus 39 1953 and the Oboe Sonatina Opus 28 1951. This is one of Arnold's typically untroubled pieces. Full of 'tunes' and the opportunities for showing off the soloist's artistry. The last movement has one of the composer's finest tunes. In fact the 'second subject' is rather good too. Cole points out in reference to this work my contention made above that Arnold has the dreadful habit of throwing away good tunes - in this way he resembles Schubert.

The latest piece on this CD is the Flute Sonata Opus 121. The Welsh Arts Council commissioned it. James Galway gave its first performance in Cardiff, but was apparently unimpressed by the work. However he did deign to record it on the RCA Victor Label (09026 68860 2) in 1996. It is perhaps the most substantial piece on this CD. This is not a classical piece - leaning more towards early romantic and Weber. We are much more conscious of a minor struggle between soloist and accompanist - with the soloist being in the ascendancy. Quite definitely a virtuosic piece. There are 'cool' parts to this sonata - the second subject of the first movement harks back to the Flute Sonatina, as does the last movement. Cole writes that perhaps Arnold underestimated Galway's ability to interpret simple things with beauty - hence the flamboyance and virtuosity.

All these three CDs are worthy of re-release and should be in all 'Malcolm Arnold' enthusiasts' collections - if they are not already there. Let us hope that this reissue will secure a large number of new fans. It will enable listeners to realise that there is more to Arnold than 'big tunes ' and 'catchy' rhythms. Perhaps both camps in the Arnold debate might learn something from these chamber works.

As a recommendation I would suggest that somebody who has never heard any of Arnold's Chamber music should begin with the Flute Sonatina on CD2, followed by the Three Shanties and the Divertimento on this recording.

John France

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