Arnold: Ballet Music (CD review)
Although many of us think of Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) as a composer of orchestral music--symphonies, concertos, overtures, and the like--this album reminds us that he composed a few ballets as well. It's mostly brief stuff we get here, and perhaps it doesn't amount to much, but it's good to have it collected together in chronological order and performed so well.
The first piece in the set is a twenty-minute suite from Homage to the Queen, Arnold's first ballet, composed in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It begins in a typically bombastic Arnold manner, but it's followed by some delightful short movements that are light, airy, and lithe, as well as more typically flamboyant Arnold, concluding on a wholly regal tone.
Rinaldo and Armida is a dance-drama in one act from 1955. The composer based the ballet on a sixteenth-century poem about a deadly enchantress meeting her doom. Thus, it's spooky, melancholy, and histrionically dramatic by turns and is probably the best work in the set in terms of pure musicality.
Next, we get Arnold's 1959 score to the famous story of Sweeney Todd, the barber who kills his clients and chops them up into meat pies. Like Sondheim's later music, Arnold's music contrasts the purely comical with the grotesque. On this disc, we get a concert suite arranged by David Ellis in 1984 in consultation with the composer. The tunes are varied and in some sections more than a touch weird, but they are always witty and entertaining. In terms of pure enjoyment, Sweeney Todd is the most mainstream of the lot.
The disc concludes with Electra, 1963, in a première recording. It's another short ballet in one act, about fifteen minutes. Based loosely on the play by Sophocles, this is the darkest piece in the album and probably the least accessible, although the extensive percussion should keep most listeners awake.
Matching the ballet form, Ruman Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic are lyrical and sweet when necessary, light on their feet, yet seriously thrusting and forceful when the occasions demand. Gamba keeps the music flowing at a theatrical pace, and the Chandos audio engineers do their magic with sound that is warmly atmospheric, yet clean and reasonably transparent. The recording could have used a bit more deep bass, but, otherwise, it offers good orchestral depth and breadth, with some sounds extending well beyond the boundaries of the speakers.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.