ARNELL: Symphony No. 3, Op. 40; The New Age Overture – Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates – Dutton

by | Dec 16, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

ARNELL: Symphony No. 3, Op. 40; The New Age Overture – Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates – Dutton CDLX 7161, 72:10 *****:

This is my first exposure to the music of British composer Richard Arnell (b. 1917), and the pleasures I have derived from this disc were totally unexpected. Arnell was born in London and studied with John Ireland for four years. He had notable success early on, and like Benjamin Britten, found himself stranded in the States at the outbreak of WWII when war was declared. He became part of the New York scene, and had a number of works premiered there. In 1947 he returned to England, where he taught, wrote a number of popular ballets, and even worked as well in television and film. He established the music department at the London School of Film Technique. Sir Thomas Beecham championed no less than five of his works over a five year period (until his death), but Arnell was never to find such a propagator again, even though he continued to turn out pieces in every genre.

His third symphony is immediately postwar, though listening to it you might perhaps think it bona fide wartime in conception. His second symphony actually fills that role; the third may be thought of more as a summation of those years, though it is clearly purely musical with no added programs, and has a dramatic impetus of its own. Those looking for stereotypical Briticisms will find little of that here. Indeed, the opening fanfare of this six-movement monster (where the first and fifth movements are actually introductions to the second and sixth) reminds me almost immediately of the “fate” motive from the Tchaikovsky forth. But that is where the comparison to the Russian squarely ends. I feel three very distinct influences in this music, all of them bold and bravely purposed: Shostakovich, Bruckner, and Sibelius. The first for the contrapuntal, bare, and almost ascetic elements that grip you like a winter fever; the second for the spiritual side, hints of chorales and sparse, linear, minimalist scoring in places; and the last for the vast, desolate vision that much of the music portrays.

But lest you think this a walk on the dark side, fear not, for the symphony progresses through wartime austerity to positively life-affirming buoyancy by the time the last movement rolls around (after about 45 minutes). Yes, this is a long one—just three minutes over an hour, but the time seems shorter because of Arnell’s magnificent conception and sublime skill in non-programmatic storytelling. This is truly a story worth hearing, and ranks as one my top discoveries of the year.

The New Age Overture is an early work, not with the profundities of the symphony, but certainly capable of displaying the composer’s youngish (23 years old) expertise, and we hear a lot more of what we now associate with English music of that time period—long, noble melodies, hints of folk song, but interspersed with what the composer had learned about the world until that time—fresh on the scene and newly arrived in America, where the work was given in Carnegie Hall. This is a fine piece, if not exactly memorable.

Martin Yates and his Scottish Orchestra sound like they invested a lot of time in the symphony, and the symphony itself certainly sounds like it demands it. This is some wonderful music that will grow in your affections over time. SACD would have been a dream come true. As it is the Dutton sound is clean and rich, with good depth and spread.

— Steven Ritter


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