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Malcolm Arnold Ballet Music

Suite from Homage to the Queen, op.42 (1953)

Rinaldo and Armida, op.49 (1954)

Concert Suite from Sweeney Todd, op.68a (1959)

Electra, op.79 (1963)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Rumon Gamba

Chandos CHAN 10550 [TT: 76:14]

There isn’t a musical genre which Malcolm Arnold didn’t embrace, even if we have been kept blissfully unaware of it! In terms of the dance, apart from the ballet Solitaire (made up from the two sets of English Dances with the addition of two new pieces) Tod Handley’s recording of the Sweeney Todd Suite, Robert Irving’s 1954 recording of the Homage to the Queen Suite, and a single live, BBC mounted, performance of Electra in 2004, which isn’t really that much for over 50 years of composition, I would be none the wiser and, I suspect, many of you reading this would be in the same position.

So it to Chandos’s credit that it has given us this CD, which goes some way to rectifying the situation. Homage to the Queen was commissioned for the Coronation celebrations and here we hear Arnold in ceremonial mode. There’s some stunning music in this suite – the delicious scoring of the Prelude and Opening Scene contains a march as jaunty as anything Arnold ever wrote, then there’s pastoral music but nothing too profound, and a real feeling of well being. What Arnold must have understood when he accepted the commission was that the Coronation was a time for celebration, it was the dawn of a new era, only eight years after the end of World War 2 yet rationing was still in force in Britain, so hopes was firmly set to the future and Arnold supplies suitably optimistic music. This divertissement of a suite was just what was needed. I always feel that Britten totally misunderstood what he had to do when he produced Gloriana for the same festival – this is no comment on the quality of that work.

Rinaldo and Armida is a very serious score, as you’d expect from the subject matter, the enchantress Armida’s lovers “meet their doom”, as the booklet has it, in her garden (I feel the same way when I look at my garden!) and she dies when she falls in love with one of them – the mighty warrior Rinaldo. There’s a lot of variety in this score, from the most tender love music to some very virile stuff.

Sweeney Todd is much more up Arnold’s street – just think what he could have made of an opera on this subject! After a superbly raucous introduction, there’s the most wonderful music hall song of an idea (it could have come straight out of his, slightly earlier, score for Hobson’s Choice), and the rest of the score moves between pathos and grand guignol. The notes tell us that the production focused on a group of incompetent policemen, à la Keystone Kops (not Cops as the booklet has it), and there is much mock chase music here. This is a marvelous suite (made in conjunction with composer David Ellis - how about a disk of his music, including the Symphony, Chandos?) and most enjoyable – the finale is a real hoot, not least for music which could be accompanying Mabel Normand’s winsome heroine, combined with the bird calls from Ketèlbey’s In a Monastery Garden filtered through some marvelous, sub Lord Berners, music hall romp music.

The final music on this disk contains some of the most brutal music Arnold ever wrote. Electra is not a pleasant story and, of course, it demands music of the utmost seriousness. Although there are many of the usual Arnold fingerprints in this score it is the unrelenting doom, but never gloom, which pervades the score which will come as a shock to many. This is not pleasant music, there are none of the great Arnold tunes, but there is the same sense of drama and tragedy one finds in the best of Arnold’s work – especially the Symphonies; when is this country going to realise that in Arnold we have a major, world–class, symphonist? – and, without a doubt, this is a major score, and not just for the ballet. The disk is worth buying for this alone.

Rumon Gamba is a fine young conductor, he has fulfilled, and, indeed, exceeded, all the promise he displayed as a student – I first encountered him when he conducted his farewell performance as a student at the Royal College of Music, John Adams’s The Chairman Dances, and it was obvious from this single appearance that he was something special when it comes to conducting. His relationship with the BBC Philharmonic has, over the years, been a good one both on disk an in concert and this is no exception. He draws exceptional playing from the band and they give this music their very best, and so they should, for Arnold’s music deserves nothing less than such a showcase and we are privileged to be able to hear so inexpensively such music so very well played and interpreted.

Bob Briggs


See Arnold Edition and DVD [Editor]