RICHARD ARNELL: Harlequin in April, Op. 63; Punch and the Child, Op. 49; Concerto Capriccioso, Op. 70 – Lorraine McAslan, violin/ BBC Concert Orchestra/ Martin Yates – Dutton 7227, 77:05 ****1/2 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:
Richard Arnell, one of the most important British composers of the last 100 years, died this year on Good Friday. His legacy is wide-ranging and lasting. Pushed aside, as were so many, by the rampant serialism of mid-last century, his music is now making a comeback thanks to the musical sanity of a later generation and in no small part to this ongoing and superb Dutton series that is covering his chamber music and symphonic efforts.
Punch and the Child is a ballet from 1947 done here in America for New York’s Hunter College Auditorium by Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, and later produced at New York City Centre when that company became the New York City Ballet. Thomas Beecham, who admired this work and much of Arnell’s music to no end, performed a suite and recorded it on six 78-rpm sides with the Royal Philharmonic at Kingsway Hall in 1951. The ballet basically tells of a young girl who finds herself alone on the beach watching the Punch and Judy puppet show that has just begun. When a storm rises she takes shelter in the puppet tent and encounters the real-life forms of the characters that proceed to take her through some scenes of mischief before Punch tires of her and disappears, leaving the child alone again on the beach. The music is wonderfully apt and descriptive, showcasing Arnell’s great talent as a ballet composer.
So does Harlequin in April, a work that represents man’s life from birth to death using the Commedia dell’arte in presenting the puppets. This piece, heard here complete for the first time, is a monumental score that ranges through all sorts of emotions before Harlequin realizes that his ideals are left undone as he approaches the winter of life. Arnell’s mastery is again present in his manipulation of the tonal and color resources of the orchestra.
The Concerto Capriccioso is the second work for violin and large forces that Arnell composed, the first being the one-movement Violin Concerto Op. 9. This piece, from 1954, is in four movements that are still played consecutively without break. Since its premiere in Canada, it had not been heard in Great Britain until this recording. The piece is full of typically lyrical Arnell snippets, with an interesting slow movement played by violin alone that sounds like an extended cadenza. Lorraine McAslan, whom I have not encountered since her wonderful ASV album of the sonatas of Elgar and Walton, plays like a champ here, fully committed to this novel score.
Orchestral playing is on the money, and this collection of Arnell’s two most popular ballets along with the esoteric Concerto makes for another feather in Dutton’s Arnell hat.
— Steven Ritter