Arnold: Orchestral Works (BBC Phil/Gamba)
Michael Collins (clarinet); BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba (Chandos)
Commonwealth Christmas Overture; Clarinet Concerto No. 1; Philharmonic Concerto; Divertimento No. 2; The Padstow Lifeboat; Larch Trees
Michael Collins (clarinet); BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
Chandos CHAN 20152 68:50 mins
Any album containing six short orchestral pieces by Malcolm Arnold should probably contain a health warning about the number of dangerous ingredients squeezed into the works’ small spaces. Covering a composition span ranging over 30 years, here are riotous fanfares, swaggering popular tunes and lurching mood changes, hurled together with high levels of instrumental virtuosity. The chief exception in this hyperactive carnival is Arnold’s early 1943 tone poem Larch Trees: eight and a half minutes of wintry ruminations mixing touches of Delius with the bleak Sibelius of Tapiola. Its diametric opposite would be the gaudily energetic and loosely stitched Commonwealth Christmas Overture of 1957, complete with inserted calypso, and impossible to listen to without a smile.
Mostly recorded in 2019, the performances find Rumon Gamba, the BBC Philharmonic and the engineering team on top form, shaping and colouring these motley scores with a winning mixture of panache and precision. What they cannot do, however, is solve all of Arnold’s compositional problems for him. The awkward Larch Trees aside, there’s an obvious inspiration shortage in the 1948 Clarinet Concerto No. 1, with soloist Michael Collins often reduced to mellifluous doodling. Too much material is forced into the narrow confines of the Divertimento No. 2 (written in 1950 for Britain’s recently formed National Youth Orchestra). Ease of argument isn’t a virtue, either, of the much later Philharmonic Concerto. Happily, everything works beautifully in Philip Lane’s arrangement of the comic march ‘The Padstow Lifeboat’: the album’s final track and a perfect bull’s-eye hit.