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Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)
English Dances Set 1, Op; 27; Set 2 Op; 33 (1950; 1951) [8’32; 9’20]; Four Scottish Dances Op; 59 (1957) [8’49]; Four Cornish Dances Op; 91 (1966) [10’05]; Four Irish Dances Op; 126 (1986) [7’50]; Four Welsh Dances Op; 138 (1989) [10’02]

Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Penny
Rec. ABC, Queensland, Australia, 11th-15th December 1995. DDD
NAXOS 8.553526 [54’37]

The obvious advantage this Naxos disc of Malcolm Arnold’s sets of orchestral dances has over the Lyrita offering (review) is that it includes the Welsh Dances of 1989. These continue the tradition of Arnold’s dance sets as superbly-crafted, eminently enjoyable examples of the composer at his very best (the Lyrita disc filled out the playing-time by including two dances from Solitaire). It is this fact alone that makes this disc a mandatory purchase for lovers of Arnold’s music, for the Lyrita recordings consistently show more life as performances and more love for the music itself.

Andrew Penny, in the sets where comparison with the composer’s own recordings is possible, is consistently faster than Arnold. Whilst this in itself does not necessarily imply a more superficial approach, time and time again the sheer verve (and sometimes audacity) of the music comes over superbly on Lyrita, much more than on Naxos. If I were cornered into putting a finger on the difference, it would be that would be easy to dismiss this music as mere well-crafted bon-bons under Penny, as opposed to the evergreen miniatures full of joy they become under the composer.

Both discs begin with the two sets of English Dances. Comparison is illuminating right from the start. Placed alongside Arnold, Penny sounds literal in the first dance of the first set, the dance elements more inherent within the music rather than there for all to enjoy on the surface. With the LPO, the music flows more naturally, sounding much more varied as a composition. Under Penny, the second movement (‘Vivace’) is fairly exuberant; Arnold takes you to the carnival! Penny’s Queensland brass section is not 100% with the pulse in the finale, completely eclipsed by the LPO members, who make sure this movement’s kinship with the second movement does not go unnoticed. Timings are:

Penny Arnold

2’51 3’15
1’46 1’47
2’24 3’28
1’41 1’31

Things go well for Penny and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in the second set until the finale, where a generally muddy recorded sound hinders matters (this particularly afflicts the horns). Taken on its own terms, there is nothing wrong with any of Penny’s other movements. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, with a nice oboe solo in the ‘Grazioso’ third movement (actually more grazioso than the LPO’s oboist). Yet Arnold’s account has much more sparkle about it. Although there is only an eight-second difference in the second movement between the two versions, Arnold feels even swifter than this gap would seem to imply. His finale is blessed with a recording that lets through more detail, and his conducting ensures an appropriate feeling of climax at the end. Timings here are:

Penny Arnold

3’14 3’20
1’31 1’21
2’30 2’30
2’05 2’36

Naxos moves to Scotland for the next set. The first dance bodes well, with the ‘pesante’ marking well observed. The second movement ‘Vivace’ is fairly raucous and has a superbly cheeky close. Arnold here, however, outdoes Penny in pure musical comedy. Despite the timing difference (see below), Arnold does not sound slower at all.

The third movement is marked ‘Allegretto’. Listening to Penny it would be hard to guess this, although in fairness it would be even harder with Arnold!. Both conductors elicit some lovely playing from their various bands. Penny goes for it in the brief finale (this is Highland jiggery on speed!) – Arnold is certainly happy, yet keeps the reins in. Timings for the Scottish Dances:

Penny Arnold

2’15 2’39
2’08 2’21
3’10 4’07
1’16 1’26

Naxos programmes the Cornish Dances, Op. 91 next. Penny seems quite happy just to project the happy, folksy elements, but in doing so he undersells the music. So, the third movement is march-like but here appears low on inspiration; the finale is raucous but feels a bit uncontrolled – the close seems unprepared. Arnold, by contrast, is more determined in his approach to the first movement and, whilst both conductors are quite spooky in the ensuing ‘Commodo’, it is Arnold that points up the beauties and subtleties of his own scoring. Arnold’s third movement is magnificent. The full marking is ‘Con moto e sempre senza parodia’ and his realisation of the music’s own inherent tendency towards a parody of itself and the sense of struggle the movement gives off because of this is little short of magnificent. Arnold brings a palpable sense of excitement to the finale (which, in his hands, begins like another parody, that of a Renaissance dance). Again, Arnold’s timings are generally longer than Penny’s, the first movement excepted:

Penny Arnold

1’45 1’40
3’08 4’30
2’36 3’24
2’36 3’06

The final set where a comparison is possible is the Irish Dances. Both conductors bring out the dark element of the first dance (‘Allegro con energico’), but with Arnold the impression is more primal. Arnold has rough edges, but they are deliberate and totally in keeping with the music. Whereas Penny is merely quite delicate in the ‘Commodo’, Arnold introduces an uneasy undercurrent that makes the lovely ‘Piacevole’ and the intense finale all the more effective. This is not to imply Penny is bad, far from it. His ‘Piacevole’ is poignant and the playing in the finale is totally on-the-ball. Yet Arnold, who once again gives himself space, wins out:

Penny Arnold

1’24 1’42
2’43 2’45
1’41 2’19
2’02 2’32

Finally to the stand-alone Welsh Dances (Bryden Thomson’s recording on Chandos CHAN8867 also includes these, by the way). Despite the brevity of the individual movements, there is quite an expansive feel to this music. The ending of the set is evidently designed to be grand and impressive, although it just falls short here – just as the ‘Vivace’ third movement has a fair amount of energy without glowing with it.

Certainly this Naxos disc is useful for including the Welsh Dances, and for its price it is not to be sniffed at. Yet it is Arnold who, inspiring the London Philharmonic to acts of great devotion, time and time again shows exactly why these pieces demand the affection they do.

Colin Clarke

See also review by Rob Barnett

Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921) English Dancesa (1950s): Set 1, Op. 27 10’11]; Set 2, Op. 33 [7’13]. Solitaire (1956) – Sarabande [5’39]; Polka 2’46]. Irish Dances, Op. 126 (1986) [9’28]. Scottish Dances, Op. 59a (1957) [10’33]. Cornish Dances, Op. 91a (1966) [12’40]. London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Arnold. No rec. info. aADD/DDD LYRITA RECORDED EDITION SRCD201 [60’51]

Easy to dismiss this music as mere well-crafted bon-bons under Penny, as opposed to the evergreen miniatures full of joy they become under the composer. ... see Full Review

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