Once again the Royal and Derngate played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the work, life and influence of one of Northampton’s finest Local Boys Done Good. This year’s title was “His Music Abounds in Singable Tunes”, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute. A dozen events – concerts, talks, even the re-enactment of a radio programme – all took place over the weekend, culminating in the usual pizazz of the Gala Concert in the Derngate auditorium. Again, we had the pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Gibbons who’s been conducting these Malcolm Arnold concerts since he was about five years old, by my reckoning.
For reasons that he explained later, Mr Gibbons had decided to shuffle the order in which the pieces of music would be played. We started off with Arnold’s arresting River Kwai March from Bridge on the River Kwai; a perfect starter with its rousing atmosphere and cheerful arrangement. Military brass and smashing cymbals at the ready, the Royal Philharmonic gave it a great rendition and put a smile on everyone’s faces.
Next we had Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. John Gibbons forewarned us that, if we weren’t already familiar with it – I wasn’t – we might find it challenging; but it’s also exuberant, cerebral, and full of singable tunes (as we had been promised.) It impressed me as a work of great variety. Premiered in 1961, Arnold included several musical references in memory of friends whom he had lost, including humourist and tuba-thumper Gerard Hoffnung, Frederick Thurston the clarinettist, and Arnold’s own brother Aubrey, who had taken his own life a few months earlier. So you can tell it’s a piece of work that demands to be taken seriously.
The first movement isn’t described as Tempestuoso for nothing. It’s full of attack, at times almost aggressive; but I did love the way the harp and celeste played together, creating the sound equivalent of fat golden droplets of rain – well that’s how it felt to me. The second movement is much more lush and warm, with the violins buzzing away together like a deep lullaby – it did actually send Mrs Chrisparkle off to sleep for a short while. The third movement (con fuoco) was one of those instant hits when you really love a classical tune, even if, afterwards, it’s really hard to recollect it. I loved that quirky rhythm and part-played, part-omitted melody. Everything gets brought together in the final movement, and I was really impressed with it. I’ll have to buy a recording of it! Again, the RPO gave it everything.
After the interval, the Steinway had been wheeled into place for our only non-Arnold segment of the evening, a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Arta Arnicane. Always a favourite piece of music, I knew I had to steel myself not to sing along to the words of the Song of Norway – and I succeeded, much to everyone’s relief. Ms Arnicane looked stunning in a glistening steely grey dress – I couldn’t help but think that the long hem would have got in the way of the piano pedals, but I guess she knew what she was doing. There are so many fantastic sequences in the piano concerto but what most impressed me – and amused me – was how Ms Arnicane’s personal deportment changed with the mood of the music. For the strong, passionate parts she’d sit upright and authoritatively; for those languid phrases she’d almost flop over the keys. When Grieg got playful she’d wiggle from side to side as if preparing for a game of keyboard hopscotch. She really expressed the music so beautifully not only through the sound coming out of the piano but also through her own physical presence. I also loved her delicacy of touch, sometimes coaxing the music out with what appeared to be just the minimum of pressure. It was stunning.
Our final piece was Malcolm Arnold’s Heroes of Telemark. This was the first time that this piece had received a concert performance; having languished in film companies’ files for several decades after the film was made in 1965. The piece was re-shuffled to the end of the concert because, when the listing was originally produced, John Gibbons, who was creating the suite from the separate, individual passages of film, hadn’t yet finalised the work (reading between the lines, it was a much bigger job than he was expecting!)
As expected, it’s full of ravishing Arnoldesque moments, with stirring tunes, thumping orchestrations and a few delightful surprises. Mr Gibbons had told us that we would easily be able to identify the German marching songs (correct) and the big moment when the Allies exploded the plant where the Germans were making Heavy Water – also correct. I must be honest though and say that on the whole I didn’t think it really gelled as an orchestral suite. No question it was fascinating to listen to, and for Arnold enthusiasts (of whom there were plenty in the audience) a unique opportunity to hear something that’s been largely lost for fifty years; but for me, I won’t need to hear it again for a good while.
Nevertheless, a great night of classical entertainment, with a fantastic soloist and some amazing performances. Now to hunt down that third movement to the Fifth Symphony!