Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Malcolm Arnold's 90th birthday was celebrated October 21 – 23 in the Royal Derngate Concert Hall in Northampton, his birthplace. This was the sixth annual festival and the programme included all nine of his symphonies, two on Friday, four on Saturday. Our stick-in-the-mud professional orchestras rarely perform these or any works by Arnold but there are no less than three cycles available on CD.

MA started his career as a golden-toned young trumpeter; was a star in the wartime London Philharmonic. Eduard van Beinum conducted the overture Beckus the Dandipratt and a composer was launched. Bingo! The composer explained that Beckus was a reckless, cheeky urchin …. perhaps without realising that the explanation held good for himself too. There was tenderness in his music but what caught the ears was its exuberance, brilliant scoring of music that buffeted the ears with its plethora of tunes and its joie de vivre. He exploited the highs and lows of sound and was economical with the middle, more congested middle range. He boasted "I have never used a cor anglais in my life".

A most welcome feature of this festival was that all but one of the orchestras were amateur: the Cambridge Symphony, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic, the University of London Symphony, and orchestras from Hull and East Riding (Youth). Never did one find any short comings; Arnold's music is difficult to play; he stretches his players but rewards them also. The names of the conductors were unknown to me but they all came up trumps.

Here are some notes on the symphonies: No.1 (1948) was clearly influenced by Shostakovich's symphonies 2,3, & 4, cocking snooks, it almost bullies its audience – note the characteristic silences and space in the score; No. 2 (1953) is a successful, integrated work, a joy to hear; 3 (1957) is, by contrast, a bit thick and convoluted, not ingratiating – during its composition MA wrote the first 25 of his 113 film score, including the first of the St.Trinians set and Bridge on the River Kwai; 55 minutes of music that took 10 days to write, 16 hours a day but Oscar winning; after completion MA would roister in gargantuan – Rabelaisian fashion with an excess of food, drink and girls, scattering £50 notes to drivers, waiters and so on No. 4 (1950) showed contempt for the Establishment and the critics by including bongos and a pop tune in the opening allegro, kitchy but entertaining; No.5 (1961) has super kitch, a love theme in the slow movement that out Mahlers Mahler and is followed by a little masterpiece of a scherzo that is the essence of Arnold; No.6 (1965) shows the composer's mind disintegrating with obsessive gestures that are alienating rather than entertaining, long notes likes fireworks that eventually explode, brutal brass forays and deafening percussive onslaughts; No. 7 (1973) is sombre and gritty but suddenly relaxes at the end into hommage to the countryside near Dublin where MA was living with his second wife, music that is bog – and jig-Irish; No. 8 (1979) seems to be keeping mental instability at bay, to behave like an agreeable symphony that everybody can enjoy.

No.9 (1986) is the saddest music I know, the creative spirit of a composer totally absent. Conductors and publishers turned it down initially and I only wish the work were forgotten. It reminds me of the final scene of Kubrick's Odyssey film with a man sitting in a chair doing nothing for an inordinate length of time. As a friend and admirer of Malcolm Arnold for half a century I can only listen to it with extreme anguish. Since I couldn't face it in Northampton I fled.

Opera Flicks

Do you live near a cinema that shows the New York Metropolitan opera performances? They are £25 a go and worth your consideration. I saw Walküre last June in Aldeburgh and Don Giovanni at the Chelsea Curzon on October 29.

The films are advertised as HD but the sound reproduction in Suffolk was 'low' rather than 'hi-fi', loud and distorted; at Chelsea, much better, but still with some distortion – females rather shrill, males satisfactory but still so loud that some neighbours had their hands over their ears at times.

The main advantage is seeing the faces and expressions of the singers instead of the pinhead Lilliputian images if one sits at any distance from the stage. And in the cinema subtitles are legible whereas in the opera house they can be difficult to see.

This Don was a premiere of a production by our own Michael Grandage from the Donmar, sensible though not old fashioned, no surprises or horrors, no updates. Christopher Oram's set began with a multi-floored grid of room like spaces that often gave way to a full stage, same designer's handsome costumes.

The cast was good-looking and good-singing. Ottavio (Ramon Vargas) was less of a wimp than usual and his singing was pleasing. Majca Erdmann was a delightful Zerlina in every way. Marius was a convincing Don, a pity his Leporello was a head taller, Lep (Luca Pisaroni) a very fine likeable character and singer. Anna and Elvira were both very good (Marina Rebeka and Barbara Frittoli) in spite of the mikes not being kind to their voices. There seems to be at present a world shortage of real basses: Stefan Kocan's Commendatore needed more resonant low notes. Fabio Luisi's conducting was first-class.

In time it is likely that all cinemas will have good sound and then these cinema operas will be even more worthwhile than at present (mind you, I've only been to two so far). Here are some names and dates in case you want to venture: Götterdämerung – 11 February, Ernani – 25 February, Manon – 7 April, Traviata – 14 April.