Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) underwent several incarnations as a composer, not the least of which was a neoclassic period, c. 1940-1945, that resembles aspects in Stravinsky’s evolution. The B Minor Piano Sonata (1942) is a pungent, angular example of this choppy, aggressively contrapuntal style, in which some of the writing reminds me of Schumann’s polyphony in the second movement of his Fantasy in C, Op. 17. Liquid riffs compete with staccato stab for prize of place. Ostinato figures abound, and one sequence bears a touch of Grieg’s March of the Dwarfs. After a moody, introspective Andante con moto, the last movement applies jazz formulas tied to hints of Shostakovich. Two Piano Pieces, Prelude and Romance, date from 1943. They have a suave, salon mood that sounds like Hollywood nightclub music. The Romance glitters a bit more than the Prelude, settling for echoes of Rachmaninov. Arnold’s most ambitious piano work is the 1944 Variations on a Ukrainian Folk-Song, a theme and ten variations in terse, angular style, cross fertilized by Bartok and Dohnanyi. At one point, Variation V, the influence of the Brahms Handel Variations asserts itself. Staccati in counterpoint, block chords, octave-displaced chords, occasional flights of bravura mark a genuinely challenging keyboard work that makes us note Arnold’s mastery of an acerbic, colorful keyboard idiom.
Constant Lambert (1905-1951) is remembered as the gifted conductor of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company, and the composer of The Rio Grand. His brittle Piano Sonata (1930) has more than a passing relationship to Gershwin’s jazz idiom. The second movement is marked Nocturne–Andante and proceeds with a bluesy, New Orleans hesitation that might have listened to Porgy and Bess and riffs from Gottschalk and Eubie Blake. After some modally dark harmonies, the light jazz runs and fillips proceed in high registers. The last movement, Lugubre, starts slowly, then it lays down a tune for jazzy contrapuntal treatment, the writing brittle and staccato. The music becomes intense and thickly layered, chordal, even hymnal. Shades of Stravinsky and Berg as we wend our way to the conclusion, percussive, illuminated, stridently optimistic.
The 1938 Elegy appears compounded of somber Stravinsky and Debussy, particularly the latter’s penchant for sparkling, exotic scales. Lambert’s eclectic 1925 Suite in 3 Movements opens with pentatonics from Ravel and Satie, then makes a move to Petrushka in the Prestissimo. The Moderato alternates trills, block chords, and high, stabbing and tinkling staccati, all moving to a determined march that dissipates into bluesy colors. Bebbingtom ends his first recording from Symphony Hall, Birmingham, with Elegiac Blues (1927), another evocation of American jazz and Joplin, melancholy touched by Debussy. One caveat: check the banding on the disc against the mis-numbered entries in the program notes: there are 24 cuts.
— Gary Lemco