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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. 11-15 Dec 1995, ABC, Queensland, Australia. DDD
NAXOS 8.553526 [54.37]


Look at the dates of these Dances. They neatly bracket and scatter across the period in which Arnold was writing symphonies. The First Symphony was written in 1949 while the Ninth was written in 1986.

While the opp. 27, 33, 59 and 91 are bluff and poetic creatures, the Irish Dances proclaim a caustic melancholy as well as some disillusion clothed in neo-Handelian colours; listen to the Commodo and the Piacevole. Both dances are troubled and have much in common with Warlock or Bridge or Goossens. The poetry is still there but more oblique, soured and borne into a world which had become chilly and unwelcoming. In the Welsh Dances there is a return to the ebullience and spirited gestures of the English Dance set with fewer psychological ambiguities than are presented by the Cornish and Irish examples. I am not absolutely sure that this final set carries the conviction of the earlier groups. There is some sense of going through the motions rather than of gripping engagement.

The vintage orchestral dances run a wide gamut. They are variously salty, beguiling, salacious, brave, gentle, dashing, lusty, macho, tipsy, graceful and triumphant. The whole orchestra gets a work-out. Arnold’s mastery of orchestration is never in doubt. The woodwind and brass are specially blessed. Arnold was of course a topflight trumpeter just like Arthur Butterworth, another extraordinary symphonist.

Just occasionally in this music we may scent a tepid whiff of 1950s commercialism but this is a transient blemish amid so much character and individuality. The Highland laddie in the Vivace of the Scottish Dances has surely stayed a mite too long at the still. On the other hand Andrew Penny presses forward faster than I would have hoped in the Allegretto - one of the loveliest melodies and most tender treatments in all classical music. Having, like Vaughan Williams, found the equivalent of his own Lake in the Woods Arnold would surely have wished us to linger longer. The composer made the Allegretto last a delectable 3.45 in 1962 when he recorded it with the LPO (Phoenix PHCD 102) and a languidly relished 4.02, again with the LPO, in the mid-1980s (Lyrita SRCD201). It is interesting to note this tendency of the composer to adopt a more leisurely and broadly relished approach in his final recordings. Look at his other Lyrita recording of the same vintage. SRCD200, which contains only his Symphony No. 4, runs to an elephantine 54.11 (frankly glorious rather like Bernstein’s Enigma) yet Hickox gets it to 40.36 on Chandos CHAN 9290. Andrew Penny on Naxos despatches the work in about 39 minutes.

The ‘march of the saints’ in the con moto e sempre senza parodia of the Cornish Dances looks forwards to the great ‘Sally Army’ march in the Eighth Symphony (for me a treasured favourite among the nine - occupying a position in Arnold’s Nine equivalent to Six in Sibelius’s Seven) from 1986.

The Bryden Thomson set with the Philharmonia includes all the dances except the Welsh ones. It is on Chandos (CHAN 8867) and is almost as resplendently recorded as the Lyrita. It sports the booziest bassoon solo I have ever heard in the Vivace of the Scottish Dances. In general however Thomson keeps the music moving along rather unfeelingly. He lacks the rheumy-eyed indulgence of the composer. Things are much better in the Cornish Dances but even so the English Dances should have been allowed more ‘world enough and time’.

For ‘complete’ sets the competition comes head-on between Lyrita and Naxos. The Lyrita is given a recording that is nothing short of spectacular: transparency, oomph, gloriously firm bass attack and silky string sound. And if the composer’s tempi are distended the music carries it pretty much flawlessly. The music in some cases positively basks in the additional time the composer’s approach permits.

The Queensland Orchestra are not the equal of the LPO nor is the Naxos technical team, on this occasion, able to capture the sheer thrill delivered by the Lyrita engineers. Of course it will only cost you a little to have both the Lyrita and the Naxos, The Penny/Queensland disc is bound to be in demand anyway for the Welsh Dances which are otherwise unavailable.

I had better not pull my punches. If you are looking for one disc with all but one of the Arnold dances then the Lyrita stands head and shoulders high. If you can find it ... get it.

Rob Barnett

See also review by Colin Clarke

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