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Views And Reviews: Malcolm Arnold - Symphonies 7, 8 and 9

Paul Serotsky is captivated by powerful and penetrating performances of works by Malcolm Arnold.

Malcolm ARNOLD
Symphonies: 7 (Op.113), 8 (Op. 124), 9 (Op. 128)
Concerto for Oboe and Strings (Op. 39)
Jennifer Galloway (oboe), BBC Philharmonic O/Rumon Gamba
Chandos CHAN 9967(2), recorded Studio 7, NBH Manchester, Jan. 2001

I’m put well in mind of that hoary old adage about ’buses – I’ve been waiting simply ages in cold and condensing solitude for a Number 7 to come along, and when one does finally turn up, it’s in tandem with a Number 8, and rapidly followed by not only another Number 7 and another Number 8, but also one that’s not often been seen on this (or any other) route – a Number 9! Suddenly, an excess of riches! OK, so it doesn’t take a Brain The Size Of A Planet to figure out that I’m on about the Naxos recording of Arnold’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the present Chandos set, and neither am I complaining (even if it might sound like it!). No – if I were to complain about anything, it would be the dearth of performances of Arnold’s matchless music in general, and (of course) the unforgiveably bad manners of a certain BBC mandarin (Proms for the controlling of) in leaving Arnold out in the cold (with or without “and condensing solitude) in his 80th. birthday year. I owe my heartfelt thanks to Norman LeBrecht for pointing out the sheer bad manners of it all – I’d thrown just about every curse imaginable, but that I’d overlooked (you can now consider it duly converted into a curse and well and truly chucked).

However, enough of this: let’s get on with the job in hand. It is of course sheer coincidence (isn’t it?) that this issue, completing the Chandos cycle, as near as dammit coincides with the issue of the NSOI/Penny Seventh and Eighth which completes the Naxos cycle. (I’m seriously tempted to wish that Sir Malcolm had an 80th. birthday every year!)

In performance, the composer reputedly drew the Seventh out to around 45 minutes which, considering the distinctly bruising nature of its materials is perhaps a nadge on the top side of a “heavenly length”. Compared with Penny’s 38 minutes (the same as Handley’s, and in broad agreement with the estimate given in the score) and Gamba’s 32, that makes quite a spread, n’est-ce pas? So, in a sudden fit of nerdism, I drew up a spreadsheet to get the wider picture (pulling Penny’s version of the Ninth out of the cupboard for completeness), and this is what I found: while Gamba undercuts Penny’s overall timing for the Seventh by a blood-curdling 17%, for the Eighth the gap had narrowed to a marginal 5%, and for the Ninth it was a minimal 0% – in fact, in this last Gamba was actually a full three seconds slower than Penny. This seeming convergence became even stranger when I looked at the movement timings: in the Seventh, Gamba was consistently much the quicker, while in the Eighth he managed to take the middle movement 8% slower and the outer movements around 12% faster than Penny, and in the Ninth he was the slower of the two (by around 3%) in the outer movements, but around 8% faster in the inner two movements. The interesting thing is not the differences themselves, but that they diminish in proportion to “symphony index number”. We could attribute this on the one hand to Rumon Gamba’s more volatile “Latin temperament” (presumably, judging by his name and photograph!) as opposed to Andrew Penny’s Eastern Yorkshire phlegmaticism, and on the other to the nature of Arnold’s music, which becomes steadily less “volatility-compliant”. I must confess that this fascinates me (OK, I’ll try to “get a life”, but just let me finish this first!), and we haven’t yet considered a note of the music.

Gamba sets about the Seventh as if he’s hell-bent on starting World War III: he rips into the first movement like Mravinsky going for the jugular in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth! This generates an incandescent excitement (make sure your viscera are safely tucked up!) and an unusually gritty, “modern” feel to the music’s textures, all of which is carried through into the finale with similar sizzling impact. It also imparts an attractive extra urgency to the “lonely gumshoe” second subject but – and here’s the problem! – much as I find myself enjoying a good old wallow in the sonic fireworks and brimming with admiration at Gamba’s boldness, at the same time I can’t help thinking that he’s missing the point of the music. Arnold marked the movement not molto furioso, but allegro energico (what a pity he didn’t also echo Mahler’s notoriously ambiguous qualification, ma non troppo!). Amid all Gamba’s thrusting aggression, we lose the “cumbersome” quality, that feeling of struggling in vain. We also lose some of the baleful gravity of Arnold’s deep brass, so fearfully realised by Penny & Co., and at Gamba’s breakneck speed the inarticulate gibbering to which the music is reduced near the end of the movement becomes glossed into virtuosic “tremolandi”, all too assured and comfy. There’s a similar loss in the grotesque “jazzy” variant, where velocity robs the various jazz-band components of their essential “boozy” quality. Nevertheless, in the dispirited central movement, it is Gamba who perhaps comes closest to the tempo marking – andante con moto – and even the spirit, of the music. Throughout, I observed the cowbell with undiluted scorn: the NSOI’s “galvanised iron bucket” is infinitely superior to the “rusty baked-bean tin” that the BBCPO have on offer, particularly as the “bangs on the can” were in any case dispatched with unseemly haste. On balance, for my money, Penny’s your man in this symphony.

The less claustrophobic “terms of engagement” of the Eighth Symphony’s first movement seem to make room for greater latitude regarding tempo. Arnold drops the qualifying energico from the allegro marking that graced the Seventh’s first movement, to which Gamba responds by dropping the tempo from its former speedo-busting level to something far more in keeping with the music. However, the energico inherent in the music itself he hangs on to, and well he might. Losing nothing to Penny in terms of atmosphere, he brings that extra bit of edginess to the conflict, making it more of a needle-match than a bruising battle: it’s not necessarily better, though, just different. I would be hard-pressed to express a preference regarding the brooding central movement: both conductors seem to dig well into the strange sound-world precipitated by that lost-in-the-wilderness main subject, while this time it is Penny who takes a bit more notice of the andantino marking (though heard in isolation, you wouldn’t notice). In the finale, Gamba cuts loose at much the same speed as Handley, in other words perhaps a bit too fast – and consequently loses out in much the same way, having nothing left for a “kick off the final bend” when it comes to the brief but crucial denouement.

I can think of many composers who have produced symphonic canons – suites of symphonies rather than just piles of separate symphonies – but I can think of none that have been rounded off in such an apparently baffling manner as Arnold’s. Mozart, whether you regard his as a “canon” or a “pile”, finished off much as he went on, in a blaze of affirmation. Beethoven quested and challenged, and ended with a supreme gauntlet. Brahms forged an alliance of Classical and Romantic, of soul and intellect, and crowned it with that imperious and mind-bending passacaglia. Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich . . . all followed paths that ended with satisfying logical inevitability. But Arnold, whose symphonic canon could be said to mirror the News of the World, in that “all human life is there”, suddenly departed from his customary style. Where we had grown used to highly concentrated dollops of searing vitality, suddenly we were confronted by what was (by his standards) a vast, sprawling, almost deserted vista. What was this? What did it mean? Well, astonishing as it may seem, absolutely nothing had changed: Arnold had merely continued to do what he had always done, and the Ninth was as logical a conclusion, for him, as were any of the other examples I’ve quoted.. The key to the conundrum lies in our being aware that Arnold’s symphonies were his musical equivalent of other people’s personal diaries, and in the period 1979-84 he suffered appallingly in the most harrowing of circumstances. The Ninth Symphony is nothing more or less than his diary entry for this period. It is with this symphony that Andrew Penny started the Naxos cycle in 1995, and with which Rumon Gamba now completes the Chandos cycle – a highly appropriate “alpha and omega”.

Tempo-wise, the only difference of any significance is the giubiloso third movement, which Gamba invests with a bit of extra pace, although when you weigh Gamba’s livelier scurrying music against Penny’s weightier declamatory climaxes it makes precious little difference. I’m happy to note that neither conductor succumbs to the temptation to use the skills of their respective orchestras to “plump up” (à la BPO) Arnold’s spartan upholstery, leaving the desolation as unadorned as its creator intended. This is especially true of Arnold’s devastating finale, an incredible movement that surely once and for all gives the lie to those who would dismiss this composer as a cross between court jester and dilettante. The nearest model that I can think of for this movement is (would you believe?) Ravel’s Boléro! In a programme note for a recent performance of the Ravel, I stated something to the effect that the basic idea could be used only the once. How wrong can one be? The daft thing is that I was already acquainted with Arnold’s finale, and just hadn’t realised the connection. Of course, it would have to be Arnold who turned this particular trick, wouldn’t it? Only a supreme musical joker could take the supreme musical joke and use it to forge music of supreme desolation.

At rock bottom – and on necessarily minimal acquaintance with the Gamba – I can find nothing that elevates either of these performances into pole position. I will be more than happy (if that’s the right choice of word in this context) to live with either of these performances, and look forward to an increasing appreciation of the subtle differences between the two interpretations. Regarding the technicalities and technology, the BBCPO it has to be said has the edge over the NSOI in terms of technical accomplishment, and is set in a warmer, more natural acoustic – although the spotlighting of soli that I mentioned in respect of the Naxos Seventh and Eighth does bring some increased clarity by way of compensation. Sound quality is more than adequate (actually, I’m tempted to say “brilliant”, but I don’t want to seem OTT!). In terms of price, there’s not much in it either: the Chandos set comes as a two-for-the-price-of-one deal, packaged in a slimline “twofer” box, while the two Naxos discs, available separately, add up to about the same price. The big difference (by ‘eck, there is one, at long last!) comes in the form of a performance of the Concerto for Oboe and Strings op. 39, as its opus number suggests a much earlier work. This is a gorgeous little piece, not only beautifully crafted to show off the solo instrument to maximum effect, but also brimming with inventiveness in the writing for the string band. While the main attraction is inevitably one of Arnold’s inimitably memorable tunes (first movement, second subject), we should not overlook Arnold’s mildly jocular marking of the finale as Quasi allegretto – Lento – Vivace, then providing a final vivace that must be all of two bars long! But most of all we should ponder on the extraordinary “purgatorio” quality of that piquant finale which, given its context in the Chandos set, starts to sound suspiciously like the acorn from which grew the oak tree of the Ninth’s finale. Alright, maybe on the recording the soloist is projected just a tad too much “up front”, but the music is played by the BBCPO’s principal oboist, Jennifer Galloway, with evident affection – and oodles of relish! I can think of no finer credit than to suggest that, had they opted instead for a “big name” soloist, it would have been a disgraceful waste of money.

The Chandos booklet note, by Mervyn Cooke, is suitably strong on context, which does help to relate the very early Oboe Concerto with the very late symphonies. Of course, this leaves less room for discussion of the music itself, which is probably wise, though I do wish people would stop trying to compare Arnold’s use of the cowbell to Mahler’s! Such time would be better spent discussing the relative merits of chalk and cheese. The Chandos cover picture, by the way, is a brilliantly imaginative comment in its own right, and it is also nice to see a properly full set of credits inside the back cover.

Recommendation? Thankfully, this is a tough one! Concerning the symphonies there are so many swings and roundabouts that it’s not easy to choose: both are superb, and I’d be happy with either, although I would not choose Gamba’s performance of the first movement of the Seventh as my “one and only”, much as I revelled in its sheer, reckless dynamism. So, you can have the Naxos discs for a tenner, or spend a fiver more for the Chandos set and get the lovely Oboe Concerto as a bonus. Or – you could side-step the High Street, go to a discount mail order place, and in all probability have the lot for little more than you would have paid for the Chandos alone. Or – you could hang the expense, and why not? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when confronted with an excess of riches?

Apart from the Seventh’s first movement which is too fast for its own good, these powerful and penetrating performances, convincingly captured, make a fitting conclusion to the Chandos cycle and a fascinating complement to the Naxos (get both!). A touching performance of the Oboe Concerto provides a tasty icing on the cake.


For more of Paul’s insightful words on great music please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/


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