Arnold: Concerto for Piano Duet; Concerto for Two Pianos (three hands); Overture: Beckus the Dandipratt; Fantasy on a Theme of John Field

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Arnold
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Arnold
WORKS: Concerto for Piano Duet; Concerto for Two Pianos (three hands); Overture: Beckus the Dandipratt; Fantasy on a Theme of John Field
PERFORMER: Phillip Dyson, Kevin Sargent (piano); Ulster Orchestra/Esa Heikkilä
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570531

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Why did the English music scene have such a problem recognising that, in Malcolm Arnold, it had an English Shostakovich in its midst? There’s so much in common between the two composers – above all, the wild and unpredictable veering between chirpy merriment (which inwardly it isn’t) and haunting tragedy (which it certainly is). That said, an idiom developed in ironic resistance to Soviet bullying has different roots from one fuelled, often harrowingly so, by clinical psychological instability – the self-expression of a brilliant musical mind that’s losing its grip, and knows that it is. The John Field Fantasy is a masterly one-movement piano concerto, full of Arnold’s fantastical inventiveness, and cross-hatching the soloist-led musings on the theme itself with brutal orchestral interruptions. You really don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Three Hands Concerto opens with scintillating rhetorical flourishes that threaten to turn dark at any moment, but don’t quite; the rumba-style finale is spurred along by over-the-top percussion. And the Piano Duet Concerto’s second movement is a set of passacaglia variations as melancholy as they’re beautiful. These three performances each excellently match the music’s verve and precision, with Phillip Dyson outstanding in the John Field Fantasy. A pity that the orchestra’s playing in Beckus the Dandipratt, though efficient, is low-octane enough to knock off a star from what would otherwise have been four. Malcolm Hayes