Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Malcolm Arnold Tribute @ St John’s Smith Square, London

15 October 2006

A concert that should have been a celebration of Malcolm Arnold’s 85th Birthday, turned into a commemoration of his whole life.

The composer’s death last month meant that an all-Arnold programme at St John’s Smith Square became a poignant tribute.

It was an evening that showed a range of the composer’s diverse output, with two of the lighter pieces alongside the Concerto for Two Violins and the 8th Symphony.

The music establishment haven’t been quick to acknowledge Malcolm Arnold in this important birthday year. There wasn’t a single work of his performed at this year’s proms, although the programmers must have known that there wouldn’t be many more opportunities to celebrate this British artist in his lifetime.

Congratulations then to the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra under conductor Peter Stark for having the forethought to programme this timely tribute to Arnold.

One of the reasons that Malcolm Arnold is not taken seriously by many is that he tends to be seen as both a light composer and a lyrical one. Certainly, he had a tremendous success as a composer of film music and relatively insubstantial pieces but he was also the writer of a very fine set of symphonies and other significant works. The Ninth in particular is an important symphony that has not yet been given the recognition it deserves.

Composers’ reputations tend to go in phases. Arnold has a certain amount in common with Shostakovich – they were both jobbing musicians, both wrote extensively for film, both combine lyricism with dissonance, can both be trivial but at their most soul-searching have great depth and inspiration. Arnold may not be as great a composer as the Russian but perhaps in 15 years time, in his centenary year, he’ll receive some of the recognition that Shostakovich has this year.

ERSO began their concert with The Padstow Lifeboat March followed by the Perterloo Overture. Neither work is his most subtle, although the latter, which commemorates the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where a group of peaceful protestors were cut down by the military, has a serious intent and some fine passages.

The Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra is an altogether less exuberant and more reflective work. Written for Yehudi Menuhin, it inevitably has some virtuoso writing for the soloists (John Crawford and Juliet Hughes-Rees on this occasion). The unaccompanied opening of the slow movement was particularly haunting.

I feel that the 8th Symphony is slightly marred by the jaunty Irish march tune that dominates the allegro. It is associated with the last film music that Arnold wrote and it’s difficult to shake that off. The following movements have much fine music, never quite rising to the heights of the final symphony but often wistful and poignant.

ERSO showed a great love of the composer’s music, and this was a fitting celebration, if played a little too fortissimo at times. I hope that more concert managers will take their lead and include Arnold’s works in their programmes over the coming years.

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