* Piano Concerto, op. 44 (1946)
* Symphony No. 2, op. 33 "Rufus" (1942, rev. 1944)
David Owen Norris (piano); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates.
Dutton DCLX 7184 Total time: 66:29
The British Richard Arnell came to New York in the late Thirties for the
World's Fair and found himself trapped for the duration of World War II.
In the meantime, he carried on a career as a composer, hobnobbing with
such lights as Virgil Thomson, Mark Rothko, and Bernard Herrmann. When
the war ended, he returned to England and began to build his career all
over again. At first, he was lucky, even though -- like Alwyn, Arnold,
Walton, even Vaughan Williams, and just about every tonal British composer
of the time not Britten -- musical fashion had moved away from his brand
of neo-Romanticism. Great conductors took him up -- first Barbirolli
in New York, and, more lasting, Beecham. When Beecham died, Arnell
lacked a great champion, and his music sank into obscurity, although he
continued to compose (Arnell, as far as I know, is still alive, by the
way, and apparently still composes). I wonder what else is out there,
waiting for recording. He's the kind of composer people who like
neo-Romantic Modern music will probably enjoy.
I first encountered his music on a Lyrita LP of "lollipops" -- the suite
from The Great Detective, a ballet about Sherlock Holmes -- so I was not
at all prepared for his larger works, like the Symphony No. 3 (Dutton
CDLX7161). I found a composer with an amazingly fecund musical imagination.
Indeed, at times he seemed to have too many really good ideas for a piece
to hold together. If a well-argued score flies like an arrow directly
to a target, Arnell's larger works (that is, the ones I've heard) tend
to scatter like shrapnel. Nevertheless, you still get a lot of bang for
Having heard now four large pieces -- the Symphony No. 3, the "New Age"
Overture, and the two here -- I find that the scale, as opposed to the
length, at which Arnell so easily works, amazes me. Something about his
orchestral sound suggests great vistas, like the music of Sibelius.
In 1942, Arnell entered a competition for new symphonies and used the
nom de guerre "Rufus." He didn't win and, despite a promise of performance
from Beecham, a musician's strike put paid to his entry's immediate
premiere. It remained in the composer's drawer until 1988, when Edward
Downes and the BBC finally played it. It's the earliest Arnell work
I know. Despite its number, the composer wrote it before his official
first symphony, sort of like Chopin and his piano concertos. We see in
the symphony the influence of Hindemith, Walton, and Sibelius, the latter
especially potent on British composers of the time. The Hindemith,
however, surprises me, since the composer had few disciples in England
-- mainly Arnold Cooke and Franz Reizenstein, the latter a German expat.
Here, although the Hindemith riffs are pretty obvious, Arnell uses them
for little more than getting started. He generates ideas of his own
with ease. Hindemith shows up strongly in the first movement -- a
symphonic waltz -- in the shape of themes, the mainly quartal harmonies,
the development procedures, and the emphasis on vigorous rhythmic
counterpoint. The waltz moves tautly, rather than sinuously, and Arnell
keeps the whole movement together in a close argument. In the long
second movement -- a slow, reflective march, that frames some noble
singing -- the spirit of Hindemith weakens, and something more personal
and more poetic takes its place. This was, of course, wartime, and I
might be forgiven for speculating that this movement laments the war
dead. About three to four minutes from the end, the texture becomes
positively ethereal, as if one saw the souls themselves taken up. The
finale, a rondo, uses a theme of strong Hindemithian cast in a movement
more like Walton. In many ways, I find this the most interesting, if
the loosest, movement of the three. Its symphonic thought takes big
strides, and its counterpoint, quirky and powerful at the same time,
The 1946 Piano Concerto, the first of two, had slightly better luck.
Bernard Herrmann conducted the CBS Symphony in the 1947 premiere and
probably lobbied CBS to commission the work. The concerto throws off
the impression of a big, heroic piece, but a close examination of means
reveals this as an illusion. The good thing is that one finds Hindemith
nowhere in sight. Arnell has become his own man.
Most of the solo piano writing tends to the simple: octaves, with double
octaves for excitement, or chords against melody. Yet the musical ideas
themselves are big, and Arnell's orchestra reacts to the solo work like
a magician's assistant, providing a large frame for a spring-loaded
"bouquet." Parturient montes, and all that. Arnell pulls one fabulous
melody out of his hat after another, but he writes essentially a lyric,
rather than an epic. The concerto follows the standard three-movement
arrangement: call to arms, contemplative song, fizzy finale. For all
the double octaves, it doesn't "feel" like a piano concerto. For one
thing, there's very little dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and
the balance of forces is way off, with the weight going to the orchestra.
It sounds as if the orchestra plays at least half again as much as the
piano. For example, Arnell produces a glorious, Romantic second subject
but doesn't seem able to make much of it on the piano. It takes the
orchestra to realize the theme's glory. Also, the movement runs a bit
long, like the Third Symphony, in my opinion. There are simply too many
great ideas, and I don't really see how a conductor can keep the movement
from sprawling. The end is wonderful, but the musical material comes
out of the blue. So we get not a summing up, but yet another spur off
the main line. This strikes me as a rhetorical mistake.
The second movement, a chromatic song, begins with the solo piano.
In texture and in its emotional territory of nostalgic regret, if not
in idiom, it reminds me a little of Rachmaninoff. The first subject
seems more suited to the piano, and the soloist enters a real dialogue
with the orchestra. The balance shifts more to the piano nearly throughout.
The cadenza is quite fine, both musically and as a vehicle for the
soloist. Nevertheless, the movement's second theme, dolce poetico,
doesn't suit the piano at all -- too sustained. Its successful restatement
in the strings doesn't really surprise you.
The third movement, yet another rondo, opens with much of the bounding
energy of the American symphonists of the Forties, particularly Piston.
But there's a Romantic overlay in the concerto not found in Piston. For
my money, this is the concerto's strongest movement musically, pianistically,
and "concerto-wise." One of the rondo episodes, an extensive andante for
the soloist alone both shows the most idiomatic keyboard writing and
will tear your heart out, besides. The movement finishes up pyrotechnically.
David Owen Norris does as well as he can in the concerto. When Arnell
deals him a decent hand, he makes the most of it. Yates and his Royal
Scots give a sympathetic, committed account. Arnell's musical heart
seems to lie with the orchestra, so the orchestra had better be good.
Arnell rewards them by making them sound magnificent.
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