A festival and a quintet

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to contribute a regular column. These personal reflections are now reprinted with his permission. The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in December 2006 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

For clarinet players, the first Malcolm Arnold Festival last month was a veritable feast. Originally it was to have celebrated Malcolm’s 85th birthday but, as readers will know, sadly he died just weeks before the big day. So instead it became a celebration of his life. The BBC in its television tribute called Malcolm a ‘towering figure in twentieth century British music’. Indeed he was, and with his death a re-assessment has already begun. Arnold is now spoken of alongside Elgar, Britten and Walton, which is where he belongs. I last saw him only a week and a half before his death. He was in sprightly form and I felt confident he would see his way happily to his ninetieth birthday (his father lived to 92!). But a severe chest infection caused a very sudden and speedy demise.

So to the Festival, which began with wonderful performances by a young wind quintet of the Quintet Op. 2 and the Shanties. Each member also played their respective Fantasy for solo wind instrument, which were written for a 1966 competition commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Each is a gem, the clarinet Fantasy displaying all sorts of colourful gymnastics. In the vocal recital we had a performance of the early song, Beauty Haunts the Woods, for voice, clarinet and piano. A setting of words by Malcolm’s very talented elder sister Ruth, this poignant and evocative song found its way to the hearts of the large and very enthusiastic audience.

The evening saw the inaugural Malcolm Arnold Concerto Prize. Both clarinet concertos were performed alongside the two for Flute, for Oboe and French horn. What an evening it was! All six young soloists performed with terrific commitment. It was an unenviable task for the judges: Julian Lloyd Webber, Emma Johnson, David Mellor and Piers Burton Page. In the event Tim Orpen’s performance of the Second Clarinet Concerto was runner-up to Prema Kesselman’s performance of the Second Flute Concerto. I’ve no doubt we shall be hearing a lot more of Tim. His virtuosity was stunning and he had written his own extremely demanding and highly characteristic cadenza. Arnold would have loved it. 

The second day was full of concerts and talks – including a very moving one from Sir Malcolm’s daughter, Katherine. The Festival ended with a gala concert given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra including the wonderful Eighth Symphony (which had been commissioned and first performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra of New York). A second Festival is being planned for next October – more news soon.
Among the many new Arnold CDs being issued, I’d like to draw your attention to a delightful collection of his chamber music, much of it recorded for the first time. It includes the Sonatina and also the Scherzetto for clarinet and piano (written as part of the film score for the 1953 comedy You Know What Sailors Are and especially for Jack Thurston, who Malcolm always booked for his film sessions). It is played here scintillatingly by Linda Merrick. Beauty Haunts is also included. A must for fans! (Maestro Sound and Vision MSV0214CD.)

You’ll all know the name Arthur Benjamin in connection with the Jamaican Rumba and of course the wonderful Tombeau de Ravel. But you may not have known that he also wrote a clarinet quintet and, intriguingly, it has recently re-surfaced. It is a student work written while Benjamin was still a pupil of Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music. He wrote it, together with a Scherzo in B minor (lost at present), for clarinettist and fellow student René Caprara, who played first clarinet in the college orchestra. Benjamin was delighted and enthused by Caprara’s sound, writing of its ‘singularity as unique as Caruso’. (Caprara was born into a circus family, gave up playing quite early in life and later became head of South African Radio.)

Benjamin’s quintet is cast in three movements: the first is dramatic with perhaps a hint of Elgar; the lyrical second movement is inspired texturally by the integrated approach of Reger rather than the more soloistic Brahms; and the third movement has a scherzo feel to it. My friend, the clarinettist Chris Swann is presently working at the score and hoping to prepare it for publication in the not-too-distant future. It will certainly be another fascinating addition to the repertoire.