ARNELL: Piano Concerto, Op. 44 (1946). Symphony No. 2, Op. 33 "Rufus" (1942, rev. 1944).
David Owen Norris (piano); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates.
Dutton DCLX 7184 () (DDD) TT: 66:29

The British Richard Arnell came to New York in the late Thirties for the World's Fair and found himself trapped for the duration of World War II. In the meantime, he carried on a career as a composer, hobnobbing with such lights as Virgil Thomson, Mark Rothko, and Bernard Herrmann. When the war ended, he returned to England and began to build his career all over again. At first, he was lucky, even though -- like Alwyn, Arnold, Walton, even Vaughan Williams, and just about every tonal British composer of the time not Britten -- musical fashion had moved away from his brand of neo-Romanticism. Great conductors took him up -- first Barbirolli in New York, and, more lasting, Beecham. When Beecham died, Arnell lacked a great champion, and his music sank into obscurity, although he continued to compose (Arnell, as far as I know, is still alive, by the way, and apparently still composes). I wonder what else is out there, waiting for recording. He's the kind of composer people who like neo-Romantic Modern music will probably enjoy.

I first encountered his music on a Lyrita LP of "lollipops" -- the suite from The Great Detective, a ballet about Sherlock Holmes -- so I was not at all prepared for his larger works, like the Symphony No. 3 (Dutton CDLX7161). I found a composer with an amazingly fecund musical imagination. Indeed, at times he seemed to have too many really good ideas for a piece to hold together. If a well-argued score flies like an arrow directly to a target, Arnell's larger works (that is, the ones I've heard) tend to scatter like shrapnel. Nevertheless, you still get a lot of bang for your buck.

Having heard now four large pieces -- the Symphony No. 3, the "New Age" Overture, and the two here -- I find that the scale, as opposed to the length, at which Arnell so easily works, amazes me. Something about his orchestral sound suggests great vistas, like the music of Sibelius.

In 1942, Arnell entered a competition for new symphonies and used the nom de guerre "Rufus." He didn't win and, despite a promise of performance from Beecham, a musician's strike put paid to his entry's immediate premiere. It remained in the composer's drawer until 1988, when Edward Downes and the BBC finally played it. It's the earliest Arnell work I know. Despite its number, the composer wrote it before his official first symphony, sort of like Chopin and his piano concertos. We see in the symphony the influence of Hindemith, Walton, and Sibelius, the latter especially potent on British composers of the time. The Hindemith, however, surprises me, since the composer had few disciples in England -- mainly Arnold Cooke and Franz Reizenstein, the latter a German expat. Here, although the Hindemith riffs are pretty obvious, Arnell uses them for little more than getting started. He generates ideas of his own with ease. Hindemith shows up strongly in the first movement -- a symphonic waltz -- in the shape of themes, the mainly quartal harmonies, the development procedures, and the emphasis on vigorous rhythmic counterpoint. The waltz moves tautly, rather than sinuously, and Arnell keeps the whole movement together in a close argument. In the long second movement -- a slow, reflective march, that frames some noble singing -- the spirit of Hindemith weakens, and something more personal and more poetic takes its place. This was, of course, wartime, and I might be forgiven for speculating that this movement laments the war dead. About three to four minutes from the end, the texture becomes positively ethereal, as if one saw the souls themselves taken up. The finale, a rondo, uses a theme of strong Hindemithian cast in a movement more like Walton. In many ways, I find this the most interesting, if the loosest, movement of the three. Its symphonic thought takes big strides, and its counterpoint, quirky and powerful at the same time, invigorates it.

The 1946 Piano Concerto, the first of two, had slightly better luck. Bernard Herrmann conducted the CBS Symphony in the 1947 premiere and probably lobbied CBS to commission the work. The concerto throws off the impression of a big, heroic piece, but a close examination of means reveals this as an illusion. The good thing is that one finds Hindemith nowhere in sight. Arnell has become his own man.

Most of the solo piano writing tends to the simple: octaves, with double octaves for excitement, or chords against melody. Yet the musical ideas themselves are big, and Arnell's orchestra reacts to the solo work like a magician's assistant, providing a large frame for a spring-loaded "bouquet." Parturient montes, and all that. Arnell pulls one fabulous melody out of his hat after another, but he writes essentially a lyric, rather than an epic. The concerto follows the standard three-movement arrangement: call to arms, contemplative song, fizzy finale. For all the double octaves, it doesn't "feel" like a piano concerto. For one thing, there's very little dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and the balance of forces is way off, with the weight going to the orchestra. It sounds as if the orchestra plays at least half again as much as the piano. For example, Arnell produces a glorious, Romantic second subject but doesn't seem able to make much of it on the piano. It takes the orchestra to realize the theme's glory. Also, the movement runs a bit long, like the Third Symphony, in my opinion. There are simply too many great ideas, and I don't really see how a conductor can keep the movement from sprawling. The end is wonderful, but the musical material comes out of the blue. So we get not a summing up, but yet another spur off the main line. This strikes me as a rhetorical mistake.

The second movement, a chromatic song, begins with the solo piano. In texture and in its emotional territory of nostalgic regret, if not in idiom, it reminds me a little of Rachmaninoff. The first subject seems more suited to the piano, and the soloist enters a real dialogue with the orchestra. The balance shifts more to the piano nearly throughout. The cadenza is quite fine, both musically and as a vehicle for the soloist. Nevertheless, the movement's second theme, dolce poetico, doesn't suit the piano at all -- too sustained. Its successful restatement in the strings doesn't really surprise you.

The third movement, yet another rondo, opens with much of the bounding energy of the American symphonists of the Forties, particularly Piston. But there's a Romantic overlay in the concerto not found in Piston. For my money, this is the concerto's strongest movement musically, pianistically, and "concerto-wise." One of the rondo episodes, an extensive andante for the soloist alone both shows the most idiomatic keyboard writing and will tear your heart out, besides. The movement finishes up pyrotechnically.

David Owen Norris does as well as he can in the concerto. When Arnell deals him a decent hand, he makes the most of it. Yates and his Royal Scots give a sympathetic, committed account. Arnell's musical heart seems to lie with the orchestra, so the orchestra had better be good. Arnell rewards them by making them sound magnificent.

S.G.S. (November 2007)