When playing the Fantasy op.9 by Arnold I’ve always borne in mind Donald Mitchell’s biography, in which he is likened to Dickens – both were communicators of great joy and comedy, but pointedly aware of the human predicament. In introducing the Fantasy over the course of the last season I’ve often returned to these words, good material to ponder on when initially listening to his work.
As a ‘cellist in the National Children’s Orchestra of Scotland, I took part in performances of his Symphony no. 5. In the wordds of Mervin Cooke, this is music that “moved into more disconcerting aesthetic regions” than previous Symphonies – when I reflect a little more, it occurs to me that it I’ve always thought of the Fantasy op.9 as a piece that similarly displays this darker part of Arnold’s personality. Both pieces have these jarring mood swings, here angry, there utterly tender…
It’s hard not to feel insecure when publicly describing a piece in your own words (ideas so subjective being easily challenged), so I felt privileged to have a little time after a recent concert to speak to Catherine Arnold, his daughter, and to hear what he was like from someone so close to him – biographies, however intimate and well researched, often maintain too much distance…
Arnold was a complicated man, to say the least. In our conversation Catherine reminded me of an anecdote so familiar that I must have heard before, one telling of his character and typical of his behaviour. Richard Rodney Bennett, Arnold and Britten are at 10 Downing Street, having dinner with the Queen Mother. Arnold, emboldened by the fine wines of the Prime Minister, is well-watered and in a verbose mood. He leans across the table to seize Britten by the lapels: “You know, Ben, this Richard Rodney Bennett is a fucking good composer! He’s better than you!”
The good guys at Delphian Records have uploaded a few sneak peeks at my upcoming debut album with them. Some of the most tender music Arnold wrote comprises one of these excerpts. Listen to an Arietta!
I passed through Royal Leamington Spa today, the town my Grandmother grew up in. The last time I was there I must have been 12 or 13, my Dad was driving me around, and we were on the hunt for a guitar that would, when I finally found it, last me most of my teenage years.
We wandered around the streets looking for the where she lived, eventually finding the right road and house number. There was a statue in the front garden, covered in the lichen of many decades, of a young woman on horseback – my Dad wondered aloud “Is that her…?”
We never found out, but the lady who answered the door was the partner of the late sculptor who, as it turned out, my Gran used to model for.
I took a picture of the station this morning as the train left, to send to her, and she sent a response pretty quickly:
“My old stamping ground. I remember seeeing famous pianists on Leamington Station platform including Artur Rubinstein and Myra Hess. They had been playing at Leamington Spa Town Hall. Both looked tired after their concerts. Must have been about 1947 or 1948”
The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon has so much to ponder inside, kitsch mugs shaped like The Bard among old posters with famous names, but I couldn’t help but think of other things. Rubinstein and Hess standing on the platform and the life my Gran led there, 15 kilometres away and 70 years ago.
Strings Attached (Andrew Polmear): http://www.stringsattachedmusic.org.uk/coffee-concert-29th-january-2017-review-andrew-polmear/#more-1828
I was astounded by this concert. I don’t know enough about the guitar or the repertoire to write about them knowledgeably. But Sean Shibe’s performance was enough to sweep away what preconceptions I had, both about the limitations of solo guitar and about the mediocrity of some English 20th century composing.
These preconceptions did not apply to the Dowland whose work I know and whose melancholic songs I love. But I have never heard him approached with such tender introspection. Every note was beautifully tailored, every phrase shaped with such delicacy. At times Shibe would set up a dialogue as though playing two instruments, not one. And what brilliant programming – to open the concert with a Dowland descending six note scale and to close it two hours later with a similar figure as Dowland re-imagined by Britten.
So, how about the Malcolm Arnold, William Walton and Lennox Berkeley? Shibe referred to the Arnold Fantasy as dark and cynical (amongst other things) but then played it even more interestingly than that: deep rather than dark, tender rather than humorous. Again it was the introspective approach, quiet, careful and so expressive, that brought the piece alive. Shibe admitted that the Walton Bagatelles were not as well written for the guitar as the Arnold Fantasy but then played them with such conviction that I, for one, couldn’t tell. Even his slapping of the strings in number 3 – Alla Cubana – was more a caress than a percussion note. And the Berkeley Sonatina was the same – it’s mood changing from lively to sad and back to lively again.
Introducing the Britten Nocturnal, Shibe advised us, among other things, to be like the blind Southern Baptist preacher reading the Old Testament and, if we found it difficult, to listen “with faith”. It is difficult, so full of changes of pace and mood, with no temporary refuge in melody or repetitive rhythms. It’s a piece that needs an extraordinary musician to communicate its complexity with love, and this is what we had. When, in the final movement, the Dowland theme on which it is based was revealed, an extraordinary concert came to the prefect end. Except that Shibe played an encore, more traditionally Spanish than anything we had heard so far, but still played with the tender caress that by then we had come to know.
I have to mention the short talks that Shibe gave between pieces. He has the same ability in words to capture the essence of a piece that he does in music. He talks as though he’s thinking it through for the first time – as though he’s never seen it quite like that before. Is this really possible? He must have played, and talked about, these pieces many times before. Well, so what? I liked the informality that it brought to proceedings. And I really liked the way he brought in comments even from the world outside music.
Andrew Comben took a risk programming Shibe into our chamber concert series. Except, of course, that he had already heard him and knew there was no risk at all.
After two evening recitals this week it felt refreshing to give a coffee concert – 6am alarm, Southern Rail cancellation joys, but coffee and pastries before playing at Brighton Dome/Attenborough Arts Centre!
This was the final time I played the full English programme before the final recording session with Delphian Records, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a livelier Sunday morning audience 🙂
Walton: 5 Bagatelles