For close to five decades now, Malcolm Arnold has spoken with a distinctive voice, yet one that remains accessible, whether in his concert works or his many film scores.
It is the former that concern us here, by way of two new releases devoted to the English composer's music. The first, on Reference, is even conducted by him, no small feat given the fact that last month he celebrated his 70th birthday.On the face of it, it would also seem to embody the more appealing program, five concert overtures, all but one of which come from what may have been his most productive period, the 1940s and '50s.
Certainly the scherzoish "Sussex Overture" (1951) and "Beckus the Dandipratt" (1943) come across winningly, the first wonderfully bumptious and energetic (recalling Arnold's "English" and "Scottish Dances" and, especially in the whimsical center section, his music for "Hobson's Choice") and the second no less vivid in its depiction of the title character (a street urchin) but with an extra dollop of mischief and mystery.
Misterioso elements are also evident in "The Smoke" - a Cockney nickname for London - a 1948 opus whose urban raucousness and jazzy overtones cannot hide its seriousness, or its originality. After which the waltzing "Fair Field" seems to recall a semi-hallucinatory merry-go-round ride before "Commonwealth Christmas" returns us, in tunefully robust fashion, to Arnold's more populist vein, even incorporating a Caribbean interlude.
Performances are similarly robust (although I hear greater interpretive spark in Arnold's mid-'50s recording of "Beckus") and have been accorded a spacious yet detailed concert acoustic. That is even more pronounced on the analog-derived LPs, where the sound is a bit rounder, more open and just that much more natural.
But, as it happens, there is nothing wrong with the Koch issue either, from the atmospheric acoustic of the University of San Diego Founder's Chapel (here closer up and maybe a little less refined) to the quality of the music.
With one exception - and that not by much - these pieces likewise date from the '50s, beginning with the 1950 Serenade, a lovely English pastoral that, despite its strong Sibelian overlay, is marked by Arnold's characteristically dark and occasionally stabbing wind colorations.
The same lyricism and exuberance can be heard in the two Sinfoniettas, the first capped by an almost Herrmannesque hunting-horn finale. But even here one detects a distinctively bittersweet air, coupled with even greater introspection and edge (especially the finale of No. 2).
Ditto the Two-Violin Concerto, from 1962, even more serious in its Bartokian angularity but still heartfelt and melodious. Happily the Gruppmans bring out both, communicating with Barra's help the music's incisiveness and poignancy. However, I wouldn't have minded a little more space between them sonically, even if the two-violins-in-one miking does amplify the harmonics.