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Arnold's fourth symphony twice

Malcolm Arnold: A Flourish for Orchestra, op.112 (1973)

Carnival of Animals, op.72 (1960) Symphony No.4, op.71 (1958/1959)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D, op.35 (1878) 


Boris Brovtsyn (violin), The Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra/John Gibbons 


Royal & Derngate, Northampton – 25 October 2009



Bringing the Fourth Malcolm Arnold Festival to a splendid conclusion John Gibbons directed a splendid show of less well known Arnold, as well as Tchaikovsky’s marvelous Concerto, played without the usual cuts in the finale.


Arnold’s Flourish is written in his typically avuncular style, well known from his sets of Dances and some of the Overtures; it made a delightful start to this show and introduced anyone who didn’t know Arnold’s language to his harmonic style. The Carnival of Animals was written for the memorial Hoffnung Concert in 1961 and Arnold chose to illuminate our understanding of certain animals which Saint–Saëns inexplicably forgot to bring into his Grand Zoological Fantasy, thus we have a flock of sheep, “a delightfully placid, pastoral canon, wandering on undisturbed by the most violent irruptions” – hilarious – Jumbo trying to delicate whilst dancing to Delibes pizzicato, played on heavy brass and the real coup Bats where we see the whole orchestra playing like mad men but we cannot hear a thing! Whoever said that there was no visual aspect to a concert? This was very nicely done by the Orchestra with their tongues poked firmly in their cheeks.


Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto proved a welcome foil for the Arnold which surrounded it. Gibbons started in a somewhat cooler manner than one might have expected, but together with his committed soloist, Boris Brovtsyn, the music was allowed to grow until by the time we reached the cadenza the piece was positively glowing. The slow movement was understated but the finale had all the stops pulled out and I was a virtuoso fantasy come true where the soloist sang as well as demonstrated his abilities. This was a fine performance indeed.


The highlight of the show was Arnold’s magnificent 4th Symphony. Gibbons had directed a fine performance of this work a few weeks ago with the Ealing Symphony Orchestra but this performance scored over that in three ways.


First of all, the Church acoustic in Ealing had robbed the music of some of its clarity,whereas the Royal & Derngate was perfect for this music, allowing every voice to sound clearly. Further, in Ealing there was insufficient punch from the percussion section but tonight, with the help of some schoolchildren there was some marvelously manic drumming which really added to the feel of the piece.


Inspired in part by the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 there is much anger and nervous energy in this work, the outer movement, in particular, have an urgency about them which you don’t find elsewhere in this composer’s work. All the various facets - hope, fury, the breakdown of society- were fully realized in this performance and the music really registered with a far too small audience. After the scherzo, a woman sitting behind me said, with almost breathless excitement in her voice, “this is rather good, isn’t it?” And she was right.


Bob Briggs


Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op.43 (1934)                     

Malcolm Arnold: Symphony No.4, op.71 (1959/1960)


Ashley Fripp (piano), Ealing Symphony Orchestra/John Gibbons


St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London – 10 October 2009


Orchestral players love to play his music, the public loves to hear it, yet Sir Malcolm Arnold’s symphonic music is seldom heard in concert – fortunately there are three complete recordings of his nine Symphonies (Hickox/Gamba on Chandos, Handley on Decca and Penny on Naxos) – so it is to their credit that the Ealing Symphony Orchestra, and their enthusiastic conductor, John Gibbons, an Arnold fanatic, have undertaken an Arnold Symphony cycle. There is to be  one a year – which is probably the first time such a presentation of this much under–rated, and misunderstood, composer has been undertaken in this country. 


The 4th Symphony was a BBC commission, inspire in part by the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. Written for the usual large modern orchestra, Arnold fills the percussion section with “extra percussion instruments which have been used for years in West Indian and South American popular music”. In the usual four movements the work is very violent, but it is still full of Arnold’s great melodic gift. The first movement contrasts two lyrical themes with big, brutal climaxes, the scherzo is elusive, slippery, the slow movement lyrical and the rondo finale returns to the troubles of the first. It’s a fascinating and highly disturbing work which tonight received a performance of great stature and intelligence. Gibbons and his players felt every bar and played their hearts out – the brass section, especially, was superb, rich and rounded, and displayed a real menace when necessary. But the whole orchestra played as if possessed, indeed as if their very lives depended on it. The performance was pregnant with surprises – from the roof raising climaxes to the most delicate traceries of harp, celesta and flute.


At the first performance the audience loved the work and the critics didn’t. Tonight everyone was in accord and the ovation received was Arnold’s due as one of this country’s leading Symphonists. Roll on next year and the 5th!


The first half gave us Rachmaninov’s popular Paganini Rhapsody, expertly played by Ashley Fripp with a technical assurance which belied his young age, the orchestra responding with strong support, with some sumptuous playing from the massed strings inthe famous 18th variation, making it the highpoint of the whole work. The concert had started with a rather shakey, and slightly unsure, performance of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite. But this was Arnold’s evening and the orchestra and Gibbons did him proud.


Bob Briggs