Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 4; No. 5
Martin Yates, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O
DUTTON 7194 (63:49)
The career of Richard Arnell (b. 1917) initially promised much. After training under Ireland at the RCM, he moved to the U.S., where his overture
The New Age
was performed at Carnegie Hall, and his
for strings broadcast over WQXR. Virgil Thompson mentioned him to Thomas Beecham, who was
interested in seeing what Arnell had written. (His typical response to the composer by phone was remembered years later as, “Bring a suitcase full, my boy!”) He subsequently proved an ardent champion, conducting eight orchestral works of Arnell, while Barbirolli in turn led the world premiere of his Symphony No. 3. Back in the U.K. after World War II, Arnell composed several ballets for Sadler’s Wells, and a succession of well-received pieces for various festivals.
Then his career stalled. During the 1960s and 1970s, a small but powerful group of British musicians and administrators decided to gain international artistic respect for their country (as they saw it) by pushing what was perceived as the stylistic mainstream. The BBC and various orchestras began emphasizing British serialists, and instituted a policy of avoidance when it came to programming music by modern tonal composers. Most significant of all, William Glock, controller of music at the BBC for 14 years, all but banned the likes of Arnell, Rubbra, Lloyd, and Simpson from the airwaves, leading to strong but frequently ineffective protests. Rubbra, Lloyd, and Simpson have since received their vindication in concert halls and on CD. Not so, Arnell. After Beecham’s death he never again acquired a popular champion. His symphonies in particular remained unavailable until Dutton began their current series in the last few years. Thus far, they have recorded the Second (Dutton 7184) and the Third (Dutton 7161). This release encompasses the recording premieres of the Fourth and Fifth.
Arnell himself wrote of both a debt to Hindemith in his Second Symphony, and elements of contemporary American music absorbed during his U.S. years. (He even went so far as to refer to himself as “the first Anglo-American composer,” though whether this was meant seriously, jokingly, or as something in between, is best left to those that knew him.) I agree with both statements, but also find a great deal of Prokofiev in the pair of symphonies on this album; and would hazard a guess that during the writing of his Fourth (1948), Arnell became very familiar with the Soviet composer’s Symphony No. 5. There are numerous fingerprints present that are usually associated with Prokofiev during this period, such as the color and contours of the trumpet solo in the first movement of Arnell’s Fifth Symphony, the striking, repeated use of the brass choir in the lower register to suggest growling menace in both works, a lyrical restatement for the violins of a thematic fragment at 2:30 in the Fourth’s first movement, etc. The Andante con moto of Arnell’s Fourth goes significantly further: its thematic shapes, harmonic progressions, and rhythmic ostinato all recall the slow movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth.
That isn’t to say Arnell is a lesser copy of the elder composer. Rather, the influence of Prokofiev appears more sublimated in the Symphony No. 5 (1955–57); and even in the Symphony No. 4, it can best be seen as extending an expressive palette. The rest is all Arnell, a composer with a gift for melody that never condescends, and a natural way of thinking in counterpoint.
I think the Fourth Symphony in each of its three movements offers a suitable cross-section of attractive elements in Arnell’s mature style. The opening slow, extended introduction and allegro demonstrates his success in building lengthy structures out of simple material. The lyrical middle movement, mentioned above, is songful and direct, while the Scherzo finale is a
tour de force
in orchestral brilliance and thematic transformation. This last is heroic in character, clever and pungent enough to stand alone in performance—not normally a fate I’d wish on any composer, but effective as a draw to listeners unfamiliar with Arnell’s work. However, like the finale to Barber’s Violin Concerto, it seems oddly terse and inconclusive after the pair of expansive movements that preceded it, unlike its equivalent in the oddly structured but satisfying Symphony No. 3 (Dutton 7161). The timings of the Fourth tell much: 13:05, 9:28, and then 4:03. The three movements of the Symphony No. 5 are better balanced against one other, but I only find the central one, an Andante repeatedly interrupted by scherzo elements, on quite the same level of inspiration as its immediate predecessor.
The performances are enthusiastic, though slightly out of focus. Textures are sometimes cloudy, lack of unison mars a few phrase openings, and there are some problems with the admittedly difficult brass-writing. Perhaps there wasn’t enough time available for rehearsal with the usually reliable Royal Scottish National Orchestra, or for editing. It also sounds as though mixing was responsible for the unusually recessed brass choir at 3:30 into the Fourth Symphony’s first movement, the opening of the main
section. There is a definite lessening of tension as a result, since the brass and percussion detonate a huge rush of energy and conflict at that point.
Elsewhere, the sound is spacious and close, with excellent spatial differentiation between the orchestral sections. This is of particular benefit as Arnell enjoys throwing various choirs and instrumental combinations into sudden juxtaposition, occasionally pinging the sound around quickly, antiphonally, to excellent effect. The liner notes by Lewis Foreman are very fine, and the music itself is first-rate. Highly recommended, especially as an introduction to one of the more interesting and unjustifiably neglected composers of the 20th century.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4, Op. 52 by Richard Arnell
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Symphony no 5, Op. 77 "The Gorilla" by Richard Arnell
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
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