Arnold: Ballet Music (CD review)

Suite from "Homage to the Queen"; Rinaldo and Armida; Concert Suite from "Sweeney Todd"; Electra.  Rumon Gamba, BBC Philharmonic.  Chandos CHAN 10550.

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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa