ARNELL: Symphony No. 4. Symphony No. 5.
MusicaNova Orchestra/Warren Cohen.
Con Brio CBR27452 (F) (DDD) TT: 64:50.
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A pupil of John Ireland, Richard Arnell (b. 1917) made a splash in the Thirties and Forties and then, with a bunch of other British composers, drowned in the neglect washed in by the change in musical fashion following World War II. Nevertheless, he enjoyed better luck than most. Beecham took him up and performed him fairly regularly. However, when Beecham died, no one else stepped forward. To this day, Arnell -- if he is known at all -- tends to be known for his scores of the Forties and Fifties, notably the ballets The Great Detective and Punch and the Child. However, Arnell has continued to compose. Indeed, as far as I know, he's still at it, even though he has largely fallen off the radar. However, small stirrings have begun. Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion has embarked on what looks like a series of his symphonies (although at a super-premium price) in fine performances by Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Arnell came to the United States in 1939 for the British pavilion at the New York World's Fair. The start of World War II left him stranded here for the duration, but he didn't let the time go by. He became friendly with American representatives of then-advanced music: Virgil Thomson, Bernard Herrmann, and Roy Harris among them. Harris's work in particular had some influence, although Arnell never imitated.

Arnell's Fourth Symphony, in three movements, comes from 1948. That it sounds more American than British interests me most. Without actually appropriating specific techniques, it moves like Roy Harris's Third Symphony, which Arnell admits impressed him mightily. It begins with a long, slow introduction of various motives which Arnell then takes up in the following allegro. Like Harris, the development seems "organic" rather than by the book -- that is, you never really know which motive will turn out the most important until the movement's end. Unlike Harris, Arnell, despite some slight transformations, does not subject his ideas to continuous variation. Instead, one tends to hear the same shapes in new contexts. The end of the movement seems to come abruptly, although the work runs a good fourteen minutes, but it makes you eager for the slow second movement. This features a gorgeously simple diatonic theme, slightly reminiscent of Virgil Thomson in the Forties or Henry Cowell's Ballad. However, Arnell treats it in a manner all his own: highly contrapuntal, Romantic to the point of lush, without stepping over. Perhaps this is where John Ireland's influence comes in. The movement is a struggle between light and dark, and just as you think light has won, Arnell throws in a sinister shake before he ends in perfect peace. The finale bustles like Piston or Mennin, and despite its brevity (each movement runs roughly half the length of its predecessor), sums up the symphony. The themes seem related to those of the first movement, while some of the harmonic progressions recall the second. I simply can't get over the American atmosphere of this symphony, beyond the superficial resemblances. It's the spirit within -- a blunt earnestness of tone, an ocean away from the subtle shifts of British composers of the time, like Walton and Vaughan Williams, or the "objective" streamlining of Forties Tippett. Furthermore, compared to Arnell's earlier symphonies, which tend to sprawl a bit, it makes its points and gets out. A wonderful score.

The Fifth, subtitled "The Gorilla" (according to Grove), appeared in 1957. The subtitle may be the composer's rueful own. In three hefty movements, it proceeds mainly at a deliberate, purposeful pace, filled with a big-hearted lyricism. Again, one feels the influence of the Harris Third in how the symphony unfolds. Arnell doesn't write a classical work, but one dictated by the pressure of his themes. The symphony opens with a profusion of ideas, all essentially ascending. As the narrative goes on, these ideas tend to merge into one another -- easily, too, since they share the same shape. It's almost all development and overall an increase in intensity. At about the point a recapitulation would occur in a classical symphony, we get something similar with a reappearance of the main ideas. However, they now appear in a more charged atmosphere and begin to let off some of that charge. I find this the most dramatic part of the symphony, and it carries you to a glorious end.

The second movement, unusually, combines slow movement with scherzo. Arnell describes it as a slow movement interrupted by scherzo. My favorite of the symphony, it begins again with upward scale fragments and wide upward leaps, followed by a falling step. A scherzo begins, which I hear as an update of Debussy's "Fêtes," arpeggios tenuously connected harmonically. The orchestration is magical, especially the string writing, which might have been influenced by Harris or William Schuman. The manic energy of it, however, doesn't last long. A slow passage consisting mainly of wind solos against tremolo strings brings movement to a magical stasis. As the passage proceeds, hints of the previous scherzo flit across the aural landscape, but they remain mere hints. Fast music does return, however, except now the ideas of the scherzo now appear in duple time. This becomes a quick march and the themes morph in response. We come back to the introductory material and to another slow section, again with wind and brass solos and duets against strings. The movement is less about themes and their variation than about broad musical gestures.

The last movement consists of three main ideas: a slow drumbeat, reminiscent of the slow movement of the Vaughan Williams Sixth; an ascending bass line, which does a surprising amount of work throughout the movement; a contrasting song-like idea. The movement begins with an inexorable tread, set by the drumbeat. Much of it has the feel of a passacaglia, although the bass line tends to wander freely. The ideas merge into one another, as when, for example, the lyrical music sounds over the drumbeat. The movement builds impressively until what I'd consider the coda, which introduces quick "finale" music, fine in itself, but which seems tacked on, rather than a consequence. It's as if Arnell ran out of nerve and wanted to bring the audience to its feet. The coda may very well do that, but when you consider the whole movement, it comes across as bizarre.

Cohen and the Arizona orchestra MusicaNova do alright, rather than wonderfully well, by Arnell. I prefer Martin Yates of Dutton Laboratories, but their disc costs one-and-a-half times this one.

S.G.S. (September 2008)