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Symphony 6 / Fantasy on a Theme of John Field Import

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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars 1 review
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More like 4.5 stars; very fine compilation of Malcolm Arnold works 4 Nov. 2012
By G.C. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Conifer Classics, a past UK classical label now sadly defunct, produced a fine series of recordings of music of Malcolm Arnold back in the 1990s, such as this compilation of 4 works that gives a pretty good idea of the range of genres that Arnold covered. This CD contains 1 symphony, 1 concertante work, 1 ballet suite, and 1 overture, covering the time period from 1955 (Tam O'Shanter Overture) to 1975 (Fantasy on a Theme of John Field for piano and orchestra). Those familiar with Arnold's music will generally recognize his sonic fingerprints, in particular his swaggering brass phrasing (no surprise from him, given that he was a former trumpet player).

The two earlier works, the "Tam O'Shanter" Overture and his "Sweeney Todd" ballet suite, are generally 'lighter' in spirit, which might seem odd to say about "Sweeney Todd", except that you have to remember that this ballet was originally from the 1950's, well before Stephen Sondheim, so that you have to banish all thoughts of Sondheim's "musical thriller" from your head. The next work chronologically is his Symphony No. 6, from 1967, from Arnold's so-called "Cornish" period. The emotional territory is a bit more personal, a shade darker even, and quirkier, still with the swaggering brass fingerprints, but incorporating elements of jazz in the first movement, in apparent homage to Charlie Parker, and even more "lounge-y" string writing in the slow movement. Arnold himself described the latest work on the CD, the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, as "a piano concerto in one movement", although it does not really fall into any sort of conventional concerto format, even so much as a simple fast-slow-fast structure. The John Field theme that Arnold uses is the Nocturne in C, which Arnold fragments to a great degree. He seems even to work in the DSCH motif in the slower portions of the score, to my ear.

As so often in his recordings, Vernon Handley is an expert guide through each of these works, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. For example, he is a bit more spacious in the Tam O'Shanter Overture compared to someone like Sir Alexander Gibson, on Chandos. Though Handley made a number of recordings with London orchestras, like the RPO and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it becomes the more sad to know that he never attained a principal conductorship with a London orchestra. Pianist John Lill likewise does very well in the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field. The engineering and sound are good throughout.

I mentioned "more like 4.5 stars" in my header because of what I feel to be some deficiencies in the presentation of the "Sweeney Todd" suite, in both the booklet and in the CD itself. The notes do not give any sort of synopsis of the ballet, which would have more clearly differentiated it from the Sondheim version, if nothing else. As well, the "Sweeney Todd" suite is presented as a single CD track, with no subdivision into individual numbers or sections. Thus it's really hard to get a dramatic sense of the work's narrative trajectory, besides the comment from Piers Burton-Page, a noted Malcolm Arnold scholar and aficionado, that the final impression of Sweeney Todd is "distinctly unthreatening". But this would be the only flaw that I can mention. Otherwise, for Malcolm Arnold aficionados, or others interested in learning about an "accessible" 20th-century composer who may not be an automatically familiar name, you may find this CD interesting.
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