CLASSICAL MUSIC Sir Malcolm Arnold 75th birthday concert RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
The inclusion in a 75th birthday concert of a work written 10 years earlier to predict its composer's imminent demise might seem a macabre form of anniversary gesture, yet that's what happened at a Festival Hall celebration on Saturday for Sir Malcolm Arnold. The piece in question, his Ninth Symphony, is already the stuff of legend, having been rejected in 1986 by both his publisher and the BBC as the work of a madman. Deeply depressed at the time he wrote it, the composer related its contents to his own tenuous mortality; and the few who have since heard the symphony (bravely championed by Sir Charles Groves) have described it in terms of a kind of musical Alzheimer's; a picture in sound of creative living death.

It was a curious presentation, then, not least in a concert that otherwise featured those frivolous works, A Grand, Grand Overture and the Tam O'Shanter Overture, for which Arnold is still best known. But it was a revealing choice by the London Festival Orchestra, whose playing throughout was of a very high order, and whose courage in programming this neglected composition merits unqualified praise.

For though this symphony in extremis was not exactly a masterpiece, it's difficult to say exactly what else it was, in the way that Mozart's "Musical Joke" stands outside his uvre, yet is among his more interesting creations. Impeccably crafted as might be expected from Arnold, it seemed bereft of that one thing he knows best: a split-second sense of theatrical timing. Like an orator who's lost the command of words, it made the right gestures in the wrong order, and vice versa.

Or rather, the timing was corrupted by a pervasive sense of wilful paradox. The first movement's Janacek-like subject had a regular recapitulation, about the only orthodoxy in a structure of brazenly extenuated textures. The second movement repeated its bleak little melody to the point of mental intolerance, a symbol of futility that doubtless reflected Arnold's state of mind at the time of writing. In contrast, the scherzo was of an almost normal eccentricity, though making impressive use of the trumpet, Arnold's own instrument, here as in the other movements. But it was the funereal finale that capped the experience. With echoes of the Fifth Symphony, a slow march cliche collapsed into single bass notes that drew themselves into vaulting arches of inactivity. The sense of emptiness, prolonged over many minutes, was clearly palpable to the several members of the audience who left the hall. Yet in the end it all made sense. Despite its longueurs, it was purely, unmistakably, Arnold.

For this dedicated reading conductor Ross Pople deserved a slice of the credit. He took a well earned break in the Double Violin Concerto, given spirited direction by Lord Menuhin, who commissioned it in 1962, with soloists Alberto Lysy and Sophio Reuter. A Whistle Down the Wind suite, extracted by the late Christopher Palmer from the film (no original parts survived), was touching and descriptive by turns, a tribute not only to Arnold the screen composer but this much missed scholar and arranger.

Nicholas Williams