Notes and Editorial Reviews
Richard Arnell (b. 1917) is truly one of the forgotten men of English music. A student of John Ireland, he is a member of that post-Bliss-Walton-Rubbra-Tippett generation that also included Humphrey Searle (1915-1982), Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990) - in many ways an even tougher nut to crack - and Malcolm Arnold (b. 1921). Arnell has lived a rather unpredictable and peripatetic life, spending several sojourns in the US both before and during World War II and in the late 1960s as composer-in-residence at Hofstra University. Though in his twenties and thirties he was prominently championed by the likes of Beecham (who recorded Arnell's one fairly well-known work, the ballet Punch and the Child), Barbirolli, and Leon Barzin, during the
post-war years his tonal but harmonically sophisticated music was quickly buried under the avalanche of serial sludge. In addition, Arnell became identified not only with music for the dance but with a handful of film scores (a subject about which he published a book), especially his collaboration with the legendary documentarian Robert O. Flaherty. All of this extracurricular activity tended to obscure the main thrust of his output - a sizeable catalog of now seven symphonies, half-a-dozen concertos, five string quartets, and numerous incidental works (both vocal and instrumental) for full orchestra - to which he has never ceased adding over the past several decades of relative obscurity.
Recently, our industrious and irreplaceable Fanfare colleague Martin Anderson has announced an integral recording of all the Arnell symphonies to appear on his new label Toccata Classics - what a phenomenal task of indispensable reclamation! But here is Michael Dutton getting a slight jump on Anderson with the first recording of Arnell's longest and most challenging, the Third Symphony of 1944-45. Because it gestated during the closing years of World War II, this 62-minute behemoth of a work to a large extent must be considered a "war symphony" (the composer lost his mother during the Blitz), and as such offers an intricate and tantalizing web of terror and triumph. But even without this historical anchor, the listener can struggle to find his way through a Mahleresque confrontation on a cataclysmic scale between the forces of light and darkness.
Though ostensibly in six movements, the symphony is fundamentally the traditional four-movement structure substantially elaborated by a seven-minute Andante con moto introduction to the first Allegro and a much shorter Andante maestoso transition to the Allegro - both allegros approaching and even surpassing a quarter-hour in length and bracketing a quarter-hour Andante and a five-to-six-minute Presto scherzo.
Annotator Lewis Foreman (whose detailed analysis must be closely followed in order to make sense of Arnell's complex and rhetorical argument) takes issue with Barbirolli's large 1953 cuts, but frankly the symphony is too inordinately long and overwrought, and a case can be argued that the longest movement, the 18-minute finale, goes over most of the same ground already covered by the three (or four) earlier movements. After all, this is intensely a young man's symphony, full of the prideful flexing of musical muscles and assaults on formal mountaintops typical of the "Leningrad" epoch.
Throughout its entire length, Arnell obsessively and at mostly fortissimo volume reverts to a protracted tug-of-war between a precipitously swirling motto theme full of tragic overtones (heard during the opening measures) and an unforgettable and very Anglican processional theme - a variant on a Grainger-like "walking tune" that embodies all the nobility and good will of the Allied effort to eradicate the Nazi evil. But, after an endless series of standoffs, at the very end, Arnell seems to throw up his hands and with an almost gleeful sense of resignation allows both themes to mingle in a raucous reconciliation similar to Thomas Mann's Hans Castor's ultimate decision in The Magic Mountain to become "master of all counterpositions." And this is, indeed, a glorious and conclusively exhilarating moment in what can sometimes seem like an unending and torturous listening experience.
Whatever its excesses, this is a courageous and monumental work in the 20th-century evolution of the English symphony (Vaughan Williams's Fourth might have served as a salient model), announcing the arrival of a major talent whose natural language is definitely symphonic and pointing to the much more mature and controlled accomplishments of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies to come. Yates and his Scottish musicians have obviously given of themselves heart and soul to the realization of this stupendous if problematical work, although the rather shrill acoustic does take away somewhat from the massive and spacious effect intended. Of course, the even earlier New Age overture makes for an ideal postscript of 1930s Art Deco optimism.
A magnificent addition to the mid-20th century discography, and an experience you'll never be able to dismiss or forget.
FANFARE: Paul A. Snook
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 3, Op. 40 by Richard Arnell
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Notes: Composition written: 1944 - 1945.
The New Age by Richard Arnell
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
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