Picture credit: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week

The missing dimension

Warning: contains passages of symphonic transcendence


If Aaron Copland were English, he’d have been Malcolm Arnold. 

And vice-versa. 

Sometimes, on this cornucopia collection of Arnold’s music, the Englishman veers just as Copland did from vast orchestral competence to freshly tinned corn. Just when you think the composer’s not coping, or Copland, Arnold pulls a firecracker out of the woodwind. Then you begin to understand why some cognoscenti deem him the most underrated British composer of the 20th century.

Where to begin? With a 1957 Commonwealth Christmas Overture in which, amidst much tinsel and mistletoe, you will hear stretches of Copland’s Hollywood rodeo alongside passages of Caribbean steel-band calypso that would be banned nowadays for cultural misappropriation. Arnold won an Oscar that year for David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Copland won six Oscars, the last in 1950.

Arnold’s 1948 clarinet concerto anticipates Copland’s by two full years. Whilst frisky and full of good tunes, it lacks the Mahlerian hinterland and heartbreak hotel atmosphere that Copland’s composed for Benny Goodman. The soloist on this album is the empathetic Michael Collins, darkly reflecting on the multiple misfortunes of a composer who suffered severe mood swings and was once confined to a mental hospital.

Arnold’s Philharmonic Concerto was commissioned by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for their Carnegie Hall debut in November 1976, coinciding with the bicentenary of American independence. Arnold, inevitably, raids the cookie jar of musical Americana, exactly as Copland did in Appalachian Spring. Ignore the spot-the-tune moments in this fourteen minute confection and you will find passages of symphonic transcendence, keenly in the introspective middle movement. Malcom Arnold could be a flash composer, but he was always capable of intuition and sharp surprise.

There is more on this album — I am smitten by the evocative 1943 tone poem Larch Trees — but time and space are short. This release is, I think, as convincing an introduction to Arnold’s music as can be found anywhere, searingly played by the BBC Philharmonic with Rumon Gamba at the helm. If you want to discover the missing dimension in English music, this is it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover