Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sir Malcolm Arnold: Two Recent Box Sets

Chandos CHAN 10853(4) X (4-CD box set) (2015 compilation)
Sir Malcolm Arnold: Complete Symphonies (1-9)
Richard Hickox/London SO (1-6)
Rulan Gamba/BBC PO (7, 8, 9)

Sony 8875181702 (11-CD box set) (2016 compilation)
Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Complete Conifer Recordings
Vernon Handley/Royal PO (Symphonies #s 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Royal Liverpool PO (Symphonies #s 3-4)/ Bournemoth SO (Symphony #9)
Mark Stephenson/London Musici (concertos)
Elgar Howarth/Sir Malcolm Arnold/Grimthorpe Colliery (Brass) Band

Sony's 2016 compilation of music by Sir Malcolm Arnold features consistently fine interpretations in excellent sound at an irresistible bargain price, Part of Sony's Masters series, this no-frills 11-disc box comprises recordings made for the Conifer label between 1989 and 1997. As with all other entries in the series, each disc is discretely packaged in its own heavy cardboard sleeve with relevant performance information and recording dates printed on the back.


Symphonies #s 1 & 5

A Grand, Grand Overture; Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 Hands)
Carnival of Animals; Symphony #2

Symphonies #s 3 & 4

Symphony #6
Fantasy on a Theme of John Field
Sweeney Todd; Tam O'Shanter Overture

Symphonies #s 7 & 8

Concertino for Oboe & Strings; Fantasy for Oboe;
Symphony #9

Beckus the Dandipratt; Water Music;
Anniversary Overture; Philharmonic Concerto;
Peterloo Overture; A Flourish for Orchestra;
Symphony for Strings

Serenade for Small Orchestra; Larch Trees;
Concerto for Viola & Chamber Orchestra;
Concerto for 28 Players

Concerto for 2 Violins & String Orchestra
Concerto for Clarinet & Strings #1
Concerto for Flute & Strings #1
Concerto for Horn & Strings #2

Concerto for Clarinet & Orchestra #2
Concerto for Horn & Orchestra #1
Concerto for Flute & Orchestra #2
Concerto for Piano Duet & Strings

Arnold on Brass
4 Scottish Dances; Little Suites for Brass Bands #s 1 & 2
English Dances Sets 1 & 2; Fantasy for Brass Band;
4 Cornish Dances; The Padstow Lifeboat

It would be hard to imagine anything better than Vernon Handley's sparkling readings of the symphonies--nice as the Hickox performances for Chandos are. Handley gets to the lyric heart of the music, bringing drive and drama to the scores, beside which the competition seems to be standing still. This is especially evident in the earlier symphonies, but even in the later works, where, occasionally, the composer seemed to emphasize gesture over theme, Handley's unfailing musicality shines through. The Chandos album, while featuring the label's characteristically good sound throughout, lacks the consistent warmth or "presence" of the Conifer recordings. Details, so subtly underscored in Handleys readings, seem lost, especially in Gamba's performances of the final three works.

The symphonies alone would be enough to recommend the Sony box, but the inclusion of numerous concertos, overtures and various concert works (often featuring the composer's wry sense of musical humor) makes this set nothing short of indispensable. Particularly impressive are the three discs of concertos engagingly performed by soloists with the London Musici under Mark Stephenson. Arnold comes off here as a kind of modern-day Vivaldi, hyper-prolific, diversely imaginative, and always entertaining. The final disc in the set features music for brass, including arrangements of the composer's popular sets of folk dances.

The Chandos compilation of the nine symphonies will be of interest to die-hard Arnold fans and those (like myself) interested in comparative listening. Hickox' recordings  of the first six works, made with the LSO were originally released in 1994 and 1995, while Gamba's readings of Symphonies 7, 8, and 9 with the BBC PO date from 2001. The set features reproductions of the original album covers on each sleeve, bur does not, in fact, include the Oboe Concerto on disc 4. Again, there's nothing "wrong" with any of the performances per se, and, as noted above, the sound is above average. If cost is one's sole consideration, the Sony set remains the better choice.