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MALCOLM ARNOLD (1921-) Overtures:- A Sussex Overture (1951) 12:11 Beckus the Dandipratt (1943) 10:45 The Smoke (1948) 11:56 The Fair Field (1973) 9:17 Commonwealth Christmas Overture (1957) 18:55  LPO/composer rec 14-16 August 1991, Watford Town Hall Producer: Christopher Palmer [all premiere recordings apart from Beckus] REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR48CD [63:23]




When this disc was first issued in 1992 it attracted some attention but has been lost from sight in the drifts of new releases. This is a pity as the CD contains four premiere recordings. If memory serves these are still the only recordings of four of the overtures.

The Lyrita CD of the Fourth Symphony (made five or years before these) demonstrated the composer-conductor's slower interpretative approach. Contrast this approach with his EMI recording of Symphony No. 5. Many did not like this. That said, I rather enjoyed the Lyrita disc despite, or perhaps because of,  the long lines and extended emotional intensity - a very Mahlerian approach which seems to have settled on the composer's shoulders in older age. It is stunning how much detail comes across in that performance. These Reference Recordings interpretations are projected with a similar steady pulse but trembling excitement is never far away.

A Sussex Overture is perky celebratory affair: new brightly-minted mornings. This is set against a desperate heroism and a valiantly beautiful endeavour of a tune at 1:50. The crowning glory of echoing fanfares (2:43) and many other passages remind you of the Symphony No. 5 of ten years later. Other highlight episodes include: 'ticking' flutes counterpointing a bumbling tuba (3:48); Sibelian 'chuntering' (4:11), a Holstian tread (6:30), at 9:01 the echoing horns of the Moeran symphony and Baxian (Symphony No. 5) woodwind calls. This work has all the quicksilver moods and lambent display of a miniature concerto for orchestra. Perhaps the invention becomes a little stilted at the end although even this is redeemed by the return of the heroic endeavour theme in the closing pages.

Beckus was never a favourite of mine. Here there are compensations: Loud boozy fanfares, 'spick and span' trumpet playing with a skirl and a slur. This is a Till Eulenspiegel of a piece. Its chaotic uproar comes over as rather disjointed and perhaps the tendency to slower tempi is noticeable.

The Smoke caused some scandal because of its jazzy references when first performed in the late 1940s. Jazz (Gershwin 'hits town' more than once) is certainly there but so is Broadway or more accurately The West End. Exuberance is the quality you associate with this piece as the explosive brass skirl, hiccup, leer, snarl and lavishly slalom their way through the piece.

The Fair Field is dedicated to Arnold's great friend and collaborator, William Walton. The point of departure is a fairground roundabout of a theme with vividly painted wooden horses grinning and the boys eyeing up the girls. The air of childhood innocence and of newly-minted mornings is there also promising excitement and adventure. The griping, gripping brass are a frequent presence below the garish colours and these 'anchor' the texture. A thunderous exercise: cheeky and sly like a saucy seaside postcard. The final moments include a slowly-glowing sunset.

Lastly we come to the (musically) strongest piece in the collection. The Commonwealth Christmas Overture is a piece I have known for years from a 1960s radio relay (LSO/Alexander Gibson). The Gibson still sounds very good and marginally (as a performance) I prefer it to the composer's version however it is no match in recording quality for References sweep-the-board recording quality.

What an overture this is! For me it is up there with another underestimated British overture (recorded once on EMI - Vernon Handley): Bliss's Edinburgh Overture. The Arnold's Waltonian splendour is undeniable. If you like Orb and Sceptre and Crown Imperial you must have this. The overture plays for almost 19 minutes. In that time the composer constantly pelts ideas at you and does so in stunning variety. Borodin's Prince Igor was not far from the composer's pen in the echoing brass fanfares. There are dashing and sliding flute glissandi, sea chanties (2:30, 16:31), English country dances (no bleached smocks, thank heavens!) and magically 'Christmassy' gamelan textures. The West Indies is evoked with electric guitar and maracas in a tune which almost (but not quite) becomes 'O my island in the sun'. The use of electric guitar foreshadows his 1970s experiments with the group Deep Purple. CCO is one of the glories of the British orchestral display repertoire and well worth getting to know. It articulates Arnold's unbounded and bounding inspiration for orchestration at the beck and call of musical values.

The recording quality on this CD is of stunning immediacy serving the music rather than the reverse. The project is a happy stroke of genius from Reference, the late Christopher Palmer (how we feel his absence!) and, of course, from the composer. Musical values clearly swept the board in all project decisions.

The eleven pages of (English only) notes are provocative and full of insights. Chris Palmer is the author. There four stills of the composer from the recording sessions and 2 drawings by Terry Williams. Warmly recommended for any collection of Arnold and any collector of British music. This is not a shelf item but one which cries out to be played.


Rob Barnett

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