* Symphony #3, op. 40
* The New Age - Overture, op. 2
Royal Scotttish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
Dutton/Vocalion CDLX7161 Total time: 72:10
Summary for the Busy Executive: A Briton in New York.
The Lyrita label (of blessed memory) introduced me, sometime in the
Seventies, to Richard Arnell through a collection of "lollipops" - in
this case, the suite from the ballet The Great Detective, inspired by
Sherlock Holmes. I found it witty and pleasant, but it didn't inspire
me to look for more Arnell. In any case, I didn't find anything until
thirty years later. In the meantime, for some reason, I thought he had
died, but he turns out very much alive.
Arnell studied with John Ireland, among others. Music apparently pours
out of him, if we can take this CD as typical. He is slightly younger
than the generation of Alwyn and Rubbra, but he suffered from the same
period of neglect. In 1939, he found himself in the United States as
part of the New York World's Fair celebration. The war left him stranded
here. In the meantime, he launched a successful American career but in
1947 decided to return to England. Beecham took him up - also Barbirolli,
with less happy results - and his success lasted until Beecham's death
in the early Sixties. Thereafter, commissions dried up, and he became
pretty much a forgotten man, although he remained a highly successful
teacher at Trinity College of Music. His eclipse comes down to very
much the same reasons as applied to the rest of Britain's "lost generation"
of composers. The neo-Romantics were shoved aside to make room for
composers who followed more closely contemporary trends. Many decry
this, and undoubtedly some wonderful music has been temporarily misplaced
or lost altogether. However, I feel strongly that it had to happen and
trust that this hidden music will make its way back to public consciousness.
Cutting oneself off from the new leads all too easily to a moribund
present, a forced intellectual imprisonment. Eventually, one doesn't
linger in the past because one wants to, but because one has no choice.
To me, Arnell's music resembles Alwyn's to some extent, but it's got
more tunes. The New Age, the composer's opus 2, shows him floundering
a bit as to finding a voice, but also an absolutely assured technique.
By the Third Symphony, the voice is there. Just checking the opus numbers
and dates gives you some idea of Arnell's fecundity. In five years, he
writes roughly forty works, including three symphonies, at least one
concerto, and a slew of substantial orchestral works. I have no idea
how well he held to this pace, although I know he now has six symphonies.
The music itself represents a very personal mixture. My ear detects a
Sibelius foundation, especially in the Third Symphony, with orchestral
sonorities that sound as if they come directly from Lake Tuusula. The
idiom is familiar late Romanticism. But familiar doesn't necessarily
mean easy. Arnell's symphony is difficult, though accessible. Barbirolli
performed the symphony with massive cuts, and you can understand a bit
why he felt the need. The difficulty lies in the architecture. Apparently,
Arnell never suffered from lack of ideas. The symphony contains six
movements, five of them substantial, and lasts over an hour. It has
enough themes to make another symphony. The argument gets cloudy. It's
like finding yourself in a cluttered attic. Furthermore, not all the
sections reach the same high level, and, as I say, the intent gets
blunted. Arnell seems so concentrated on each individual section that
he forgets to step back to see the whole movement. It also strikes me
that Arnell habitually wants to do too much. For example, the finale,
a rondo, is also a set of variations on a secondary subject. In fact,
the chief subject gets submerged or reduced to figuration during the
course of the work, only to return with anything like its initial
importance at the end. It's a jolt, I can tell you. Furthermore, you
can level the same general criticism at two other movements at least.
Still, merely cutting sections doesn't solve the problem. It's hard to
know when to cut and for what purpose. Grieg's piano concerto, for
example, also comes at you in sections, but only an extremely tender
musical conscience cares, since the overall intention of each movement
never falls into doubt. Arnell really needs a clearer dramatic shape.
In lieu of that, you might as well have it all.
In this symphony, at any rate, I manage to sort things out by thinking
of them in large groups, since the rhetorical strategy is usually the
war between darkness and light. Themes tend to belong to one side or
the other. Arnell, of course, wrote the symphony during World War II
(he lost his mother in the Blitz), and perhaps the opposition rises from
that. However, the symphony is also a musical document of the American
Forties, since Arnell not only wrote it here but at the time attempted
to build an American career. On his Sibelian foundation, one finds
follies and turrets that owe much to prominent American populists and
nationalists, especially Copland and Virgil Thomson, the latter a friend
of Arnell's. Arnell usually dips into the idiom when he wants to express
fast-moving joy; his orchestra turns into a barn dance or a hoedown.
And yet... the symphony has powerful attractions. Despite the conservative
idiom (even for the time of its composition), Arnell can generate passages
of high originality and interest. He's also a first-rate melodist and
a whiz of an orchestrator. I far prefer to spend my time in Arnell's
company than in Ades's. I stress that this is the only major Arnell
that I've heard. There are five more symphonies, a few concerti, at
least two operas, and a raft of ballets, as well as chamber music. A
chamber-music volume also appears on Dutton. Get it before it goes.
With publishers whining about how little accessible music is out there,
they could do worse than take up Arnell.
Martin Yates and his Scots do a good enough job. They convey Arnell's
big nature, but they don't solve his problems. Well, not even Barbirolli
did that. Still, this is one attractive disc.
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