Sir Malcolm Arnold was not an emotionally stable man and this is apparent from much of his work. His musical aesthetic was obviously influenced by his character. Passages of diatonic lyricism may be disturbed by dissonant decorative writing, for example, or a lovely reverie may be rudely interrupted by pounding atonal chords. The "Fantasy on a Theme of John Field" for Piano and Orchestra included on this disc is particularly confused in mood and I admit to finding it a problematic work for that reason. I have no problem at all with the quality of the music itself. It's enormously imaginative, tuneful and colourful but the way in which the listener is wrenched from one mood to another makes for an unsettling listen. Perhaps the most extreme example comes at 16 mins 8 secs when you're likely to jump out of your skin! However, the piece does end with an emotionally unambiguous major key melody in the tradition of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.
You will spot other, though less extreme, examples illustrating this confusing aesthetic in the other pieces on this disc. It's almost as if Arnold was born out of his time. As is the case with some of Prokofiev's music, you have the impression that he was really a Romantic who felt obliged to adopt, at least some of the time, a modern style in order to be taken seriously. The resulting music can be a little self-conscious and unconvincing.
Yet the quality of the musical thought is not in question. Arnold was never short of a striking musical idea and this disc is full of them. The Concerto for Three Hands on Two Pianos, written for the English duo of Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, caused a sensation when it was premiered at the Proms in 1969. It's easy to see why. All three movements are enormously tuneful. The slow movement's melody is exquisite and the finale includes a rumba which is guaranteed to impress the most prejudiced teenager. (I used to teach Music in schools and this movement would always bring the house down!)
The Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings is, perhaps, the finest piece on this disc though certainly not the most commercial. The first movement is a well argued allegro built on a march tune. Then comes a fine Passacaglia, the theme of which is an easily assimilated chromatic descending sequential pattern. There is plenty of variety in this music but the piece is well sustained and satisfying. The finale has a nervous main theme and two other tunes, the second of which is one of those typical bitter-sweet melodies typical of the composer.
The disc also includes Arnold's rumbustious Overture "Beckus the Dandipratt", his first major recorded work and a popular success though some darker emotions are evoked along the way.
All the music here is beautifully recorded and played. The conducting is particularly fine and the Ulster Orchestra plays superbly. Arnold himself thought that Dyson played the "Fantasy" better than anyone. I can confidently recommend this disc but, as I say, you'll need to hold on to your hat during the "Fantasy"!