RPO/Wordsworth, Derngate Theatre, Northampton<img src="http://www.independent.co.uk/template/ver/gfx/fourstar.gif"></img >

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The Independent Culture

The death of Sir Malcolm Arnold last month transformed the closing concert of the Arnold Festival in Northampton, planned to mark the composer's 85th birthday, into a celebration of his life and music.

Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture lived up to its title with mock-heroic gestures and a wildly protracted coda. The score requires vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher, but what lifts the overture is the radiant presence of one of Arnold's most affecting "big tunes".

Two more pieces followed in the composer's spirited manner - the Sound Barrier Rhapsody, and the inexhaustibly tuneful Suite from 1953's Homage to the Queen, in which the queens of the four elements pay tribute to the newly crowned Elizabeth II.

After the interval, the tone darkened with Arnold's Overture: The Fair Field, with its fairground waltz. Barry Wordsworth and the RPO tapped into the emotional undercurrents in this world-weary theme. Emotionally complex, The Fair Field wilfully strains the conventions of the concert overture.

Burlesque for horn and small orchestra, receiving its premiere, was a highly entertaining concerto movement reassembled by Alan Poulton from sketches that the composer made in June 1944. Spiced with Latin rhythms the Burlesque is a most welcome addition to the oeuvre.

The Arnold symphonies remain shamefully neglected, none more so than the Eighth, a courageous and admirable choice to end the concert.

The first movement is graced by a beatific Irish march tune, which returns several times with its saintly aura intact, despite vigorous attempts to besmirch it.

Elegiac in mood, the central movement unfolds a succession of desolate wind solos. A sombre passage for lower strings ushers in an atmospheric episode with harp and celesta.

By contrast, the concluding Vivace affects jubilation, but the terseness and frenzy of the music imply hollowness behind the smile. Ambiguous and enigmatic, the Eighth Symphony presents the paradoxes of Arnold's musical character.

In tribute to Arnold's versatility and achievement, the RPO played with passion and commitment, and the audience's enthusiastic reception was a reminder of how this composer never lost faith in the power of communication.