LPO / Handley, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

With an intimate biography on sale, a harrowing television documentary pending, and the object of it all too frail to attend, this concert - the central event of a South Bank mini-festival - was a strange occasion.

With an intimate biography on sale, a harrowing television documentary pending, and the object of it all too frail to attend, this concert - the central event of a South Bank mini-festival - was a strange occasion.

Sixty-three years after the London Philharmonic first employed a brilliant 19-year old student trumpeter called Malcolm Arnold, it was understandable that the orchestra should seek to celebrate his subsequent achievements with the broadest possible range of his music. Yet even under the crisp direction of that veteran upholder of the Great British Musical Tradition, Vernon Handley, the portrait that emerged remained as puzzling as ever.

In one sense, the most revealing item was Arnold's film score for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), in that it shows a composer absolutely at one with the clichés of the genre, and of his time. Not a hint of irony was to be heard in this panoply of sub-Waltonian fanfares and luscious Puccini-esque tunes - only a superior skill in melodic structure and orchestral texture that ought to put such latter-day practitioners as James Horner of Titanic fame to shame. But scoring films is an applied art, in which a composer has to fulfil prescribed requirements. With Arnold, the problems tended to proliferate the more directly he sought to express himself.

Even in such ostensibly lighter works as Beckus the Dandipratt (1943), which first made his name, the continuity is by no means obvious. The genial quirks and vulgarities of the dear old British comedy overture genre that it invokes are continually contradicted or short-circuited; almost nothing follows through as one expects. Likewise, the far later Clarinet Concerto 2 (1974), composed for Benny Goodman, moves too swiftly from eerily piled up slow movement dissonances to a raucous finale of uptempo clarinet licks and horn whoops - though the last degree of raucousness was perhaps all that was missing from the lively and sensitive interpretation of the 15-year old virtuoso Julian Bliss.

And what of the Philharmonic Concerto (1976)? In this, between brazen apostrophes, the first movement seems to be stuck in an arid nagging between between adjacent semitones, only to yield in the second movement to finely drawn two-part writing, and in the chaconne finale to one of the most tightly argued structures in Arnold's later music.

The Symphony No 6 (1967) is similarly ambiguous, with a barely suppressed sense of violence behind the 12-tone twitches of its precipitate first movement and darkly elegiac second alike - to which the trumpet signals and mechanistic jollities of the finale seem no resolution whatever. One sensed the initial enthusiasm of a capacity audience turning uncertain as the real pain behind the musical fun and games gradually emerged.

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