Let’s start with a prediction. On 21 October 2006, Sir Malcolm Arnold C.B.E. will be 85 years old. No, that’s not the prediction, this is: on his birthday he will look back, with not unreasonable pride, at the overwhelming reception given to a stonking great celebration of his music, in all its glorious breadth and depth … at the 2006 “BBC Proms”. Moreover, Sir Malcolm will continue to enjoy these performances at leisure, as they will all have been recorded by the the unfailingly diligent and devoted Anthony Day, who will file them all carefully alongside newspaper clippings of rave reviews – and a number of reported sightings of the porcine equivalents of Dumbo, circling the dome of the Royal Albert Hall. Please pardon my cynicism; nothing would please me more than for the BBC to prove it utterly unjustified.
Still, it’s gratifying that I can leave my cynicism tucked away in its crusty old box when I turn towards the world of commercial recordings. Several special Arnold anniversaries have indeed been celebrated, but more noteworthy is that a goodly number of record companies continue to promote Arnold’s music regardless of any “excuse”, proceeding purely on the grounds that the music itself is special – and, let’s not forget, commercially viable! Today, the lover of Arnold’s music, provided only that he possesses the requisite audio kit, has a greater store of Arnold treasures at his fingertips than ever before. Yet although in many cases we’re spoilt for choice, there are some significant works still awaiting their first recordings.
As the label on this CD implies, The Return of Odysseus is one of them. In fact, apart from its first performance Odysseus has rarely “returned”! I do find myself wondering, how could it have slipped the net for so long? Although Arnold wrote several pieces for choir, this substantial work is his only foray into the exalted realm of choir and symphony orchestra. That makes it something of a “sore thumb”, don’t you think? Maybe people have been put off by the work’s provenance. It was commissioned by the Schools’ Music Association, so presumably it is intended for performance by (senior school) children. Given that, I can see that some folk – consciously or otherwise – might prejudicially dismiss it as “kids’ stuff”.
I would hold my horses, not least because I happen to have a tape recording of The Song of Freedom, a setting for children’s choir and brass band of some decidedly pungent children’s poetry. Now, this is “kids’ stuff” – but there is nothing even remotely childish about it. Avoiding Britten’s generally somewhat “precious” approach to writing for kids, Arnold gave them some real, red meat to chew. On the recording, the choirs of Mancunian children rip into it with all the delicacy and attention to etiquette that you’d expect of your average pride of starving lions.
Returning to Odysseus, you might anticipate that a work written smack in the middle of Arnold’s singularly troubled time in Ireland would be bound to contain some relevant resonances. After all, the text of The Return of Odysseus concerns the unwavering faithfulness of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and it was while Arnold was working on it that his wife left him. Well, strange though it may seem at first, The Return of Odysseus is a “resonance-free” zone!
As Harris and Meredith’s biography so graphically conveys, Arnold was severely “troubled”, not just whilst in Ireland, but all the time. Yet, he contrived to partition his output. In fact, throughout his career he was able generally to confine confessions of his angst to the works he, in effect, chose to label “personal”. This, perhaps the only aspect of his congenital illness that he could – and did – control, is something remarkable upon which to ponder – because otherwise it’s possible that he would have ended up writing very little music at all.
Arnold conjures up the impression of “ancient Greece” by having the choir, with the sole exception of the confused gabbling that conveys Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors, sing monophonically, in unison or harmony. Moreover, much of the descriptive verse is presented in solemn, chant-like melodies, of the sort which our ears instinctively associate with antiquity. This might appear to border on cliché – though that didn’t bother Stravinsky, either – and in a sense it does, because it soon becomes obvious that Arnold was drawing on the very skills he had honed through many a film score. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the music has a lot in common with film music, being palpably simple of utterance and direct in its expression. In Arnold’s hey-day there were plenty of folk who looked down their noses at film music and its composers. I dare say that they or their descendants would view this cantata with the same lofty disdain. Equally, others might dismiss these qualities as concessions to the “limited technical facility” of youngsters.
As I see it, both factions would be barking up the wrong tree. Let’s look at the libretto, which was written by Patric Dickinson, one of Arnold’s Savile Club pals. It succinctly summarises the two dozen books of Homer’s original epic poem. In fact, in spite of a couple of instances of slightly dog-eared scansion, it’s a summary that’s a sight more succinct than it seems, because – in line with common practice down through the ages – the text and its choral setting involve much repetition. But most importantly there is nothing in the least reverential about Dickinson’s poem: he merrily mixes and mingles formal phraseology and vulgar vernacular. Two particularly tasty examples are:
“And stow your gab,” they snarled at him,
“Or we’ll chuck you overboard!”
Odysseus spent his daytime weeping
Out by the empty sea.
He wept for his wife, ‘til the sun was setting
And Calypso called, “It’s time to be getting
In bed with immortal me.”
Then again, even in 1976 it must have seemed fairly shocking to find words like “lousy” and “fornicating” in a work intended for performance by children. I don’t suppose for a moment that the kids would have batted an eyelid – quite the contrary, they’d have lapped it up! – but I’ll bet it caused quite a flap in the hallowed halls of the Schools Music Association.
So, Arnold had a libretto telling a juicy tale that was brimming with graphic incident and, not least from his previous experience with The Song of Freedom, he was well aware that school-children were fully capable of charming the birds out of the trees one minute, and raising the roof the next. It was all just sitting up and begging for the explicit, full-frontal, film music treatment. He never was one to pass up such an opportunity, so the result was simple, direct, and bristling with opportunities for – shall we say? – enthusiastic performers.
Naturally, Arnold packed in far more than chanted evocations of “ancient Greece”. For dramatic contrast, he roped in styles with other associations altogether – the sailors, for example, lustily recount Odysseus’s adventures with what is generally thought of as a “sea shanty”, though to me the style sounds like nothing more than that of a rugby song. He develops this idea into some of that rollicking, “Arnold on the Razzle” stuff that we all love so well, and which occasionally veers dangerously close to Swing. Still further contrast is provided by moments of tenderness – and towering, tumultuous outbursts. It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to learn that there are several memorable tunes – one in particular, rooted in the words “He’ll never come back”, is singularly “sticky”.
There is a particularly curious coincidence, concerning a passage (starting at 9:54) where the returning sailors recount how the lost and wandering Odysseus had become so desperate for directions that he went down into Hades to ask the way. As it begins, it is momentarily reminiscent of the third Cornish Dance. However, thereafter it sounds strikingly similar to part of The Song of Freedom, both in its mesmerising melodic line and in the accompaniment rhythms of the three verses. Here, although I am convinced that Arnold is recycling material – and why not? J. S. Bach did! – it is a far cry from straightforward self-quotation: the “old” materials are inventively re-worked.
Arnold never ceases to amaze me because, yet again, all this apparent simplicity and directness conceals – certainly from the casual ear – a finely-crafted, tautly-knit musical structure. Taking his cue from the symmetries of the tale, Arnold creates a “game of two halves” separated, at “half-time”, by a summarial orchestral “development”. There are lots of cross-connections, the principal one being that the first half comes to be dominated by that “sticky” theme, and the second by another, march-like theme, which grows out of the “sticky” theme. To me, this is a stroke of structural genius, brilliantly mirroring the shift of initiative in the storyline.
By way of complement, what we might call the prelude and postlude display a touch of dramatic genius. At the start, the insistent, bell-like chiming of a glockenspiel, aided and abetted by high woodwind and harp, seems to evoke the ticking of eternity’s clock, measuring the waiting occasioned by Odysseus’s somewhat lengthy absence – nowadays, even after a mere seven years he’d have been “presumed dead”, wouldn’t he? Against this is set apparently reposeful music – all is quiet but, as the clouded collisions of the music’s meandering harmonies imply and the words of the choir explain, all is far from well. Arnold craftily re-deploys these same materials, minus the harmonic pungency, to evoke the real repose of the conclusion’s lullaby. It’s all so simple, but all so marvellous!
Odysseus is – as ever – instantly recognisable as Arnold. Oh, I am sure that you could bang on until you’re blue in the face, that this passage is a bit like X and this other is a bit like Y – indeed, I did so myself a couple of paragraphs ago, as did Rob Barnett – ever the finest ferreter of appropriate analogues – in his review. Yet, to the best of my experience, it’s also true that Odysseus is not quite like anything else that Arnold ever wrote.
The big question is: how well does it transpose from a children’s to an adult choir? That’s a difficult one to answer if you’ve never heard the work done by children’s voices! The best I can offer is that, for most of the time, as I listened I felt no sense of “loss”. Just occasionally I found myself thinking, “Yes, this bit would sound so right sung by kids! Wouldn’t there be a nadge of extra purity in the concluding lullaby, and doesn’t that outburst cry out for rampant ‘screaming kids’?” But, without the actual experience, these can amount to no more than conjectures. So, I’d have to be a real sour-puss to use them to diminish, even if only comparatively, the achievement of the Glasgow Chorus.
First, though, let’s get the bad news out of the way. I noticed a tendency for the choir to “curl its ‘r’s”. [note by divine art – the choir is scottish – they do curl their “r”s”] Now, I know that this is customary choral practice in pursuit of improved intelligibility, but – I stress, to me – it sounds contrived, and I’d rather they didn’t. In any case, it doesn’t help the intelligibility of the remaining 25 letters of the alphabet and Arnold, with an almost unheard-of consideration for intelligibility, adopts his usual practice of “one syllable – one note”. Looking on the bright side, at least they don’t “rrrrroll their ‘rrrrr’s”!
I did wonder whether the choir, or conductor Graham Taylor, was too mindful of the responsibility that went with this première recording? For, it seemed to me, occasionally they played it too safe. The dynamic never drops below piano – nowhere is there any real pianissimo. Yet, there are parts that would seem to demand it. For example, the ladies’ appeal to the sailors, “We want to know if he is alive” (at around 5:00) surely should be sotto voce? When your question concerns nothing less than your entire future and well-being, your voice might just be little more than a tremulous whisper. However, please weigh this in the light of my comments on the recording (see below). Also, the printed text said that the sailors’ first entry (just after 4:30) is “(in distance)”, yet the voices all too obviously came straight from their normal locations. Admittedly, if that one and only “stage direction” had been omitted, this would have bothered me a lot less than it did!
One the other hand, sometimes I found myself hankering for just a bit more, as a bit more “punch” in the punch-line to the “Cyclops” episode (6:20-ish), or sailors crying “Land at last!” and sounding a bit more over the moon about it, or that extra ounce of anxiety in the ladies’ “He must, he will” (c. 7:15), or a greater sense of crescendo through the build-up to “He has drawn the bow!” (22:13 – 23:25) which is, let’s face it, nothing less than the zenith of the entire drama.
That sounds like an awful lot of grumbling, so let’s set it in some sort of context, which as far as I am concerned is the context of the odd bit of cracked marble in an otherwise perfectly-formed Greek statue. Soon after its first entry, the chanting chorus expands imposingly towards its first cry of “Odysseus” then, a minute later, the sopranos’ blanched voices tell us that “Lady Penelope waits and weeps, in her cold bed”. Another minute on, and the contraltos gloomily report that “Our land is leaderless”, then grow panicky at the thought that “You are too young to act”. At the end of the “Circe” verse (before 8:52) there is a cracking exchange on the “He’ll never come back” refrain, between (male) sailors and (female) people. The latter make a particularly telling diminuendo (“We will wait and hope”), opening up the hiatus into which step those thoroughly nasty suitors.
I could add quite a lot more, but I’ll limit myself to two “non-musical” events. The final words of the “Hell” episode are greeted with a howl of anguish that is truly hair-raising, and the frantic flapping of the suitors, which is understandable as they are being slaughtered, is fit to curl that raised hair. Of course, this all adds up to something, and that something is that the Glasgow choir put on a generally damned good show of vocal acting, and that perhaps I’m being just a wee bit picky.
The solo soprano’s rôle is very small: she sings but one word (“Odysseus”), although Arnold does allow her a full repeat! However, it’s a very important rôle, which she carries off with appropriately modest triumph. Arnold could have stuck rigidly to his choral brief, and plunged straight into the massive celebration, but he’s a better dramatist than that. Instead this lone, still, small voice creeps into the resounding silence following the moment of mayhem – a tentative recognition of the true identity of the “scrawny old beggar” who has delivered the people from evil. It is an apt and logical prompt provoking the massed realisation of the fact.
Occasionally, the Orchestra of Scottish Opera sounds a bit rough around the edges. Of course, to some extent that’s only what you’d expect, in comparison with any of those jet-setting, super-glossy bands that supposedly define “excellence” in our enlightened world. In many ways, I’m glad about that. I like a bit of old-fashioned human frailty. It keeps me aware that, to paraphrase JFK, “they do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Technical excellence is usually bought at the expense of a distinctive character, and in my book that’s too high a price. So, I’m happy to ignore those rough edges, which anyway are not all that rough, and instead to lap up the OSO’s characterful performance.
And, with delights such as are on offer, why not? Mind you, because the choir (quite properly) predominates, the orchestra spends a fair bit of its time doubling the choral line or “filling in” – a job that’s bread and butter to an opera orchestra, and one they do admirably well. But, just as in any opera, when they do get their chances to show their mettle, they are positively champing at the bit. You can almost phrase it like one of those old film trailers: “Hear the shining purity of the woodwind at the start, extending the sounds of the chiming glockenspiel, weep at the forlorn weariness of the well-rounded strings and the horns’ injected pang of pain! Revel in the refreshing sea-spray splashed by the ensemble as the sailors arrive, or the bouncing brasses in the ‘shanty’. Gape in awe at the baleful booming of heavy brasses, underpinned by a black bass drum and surmounted by a towering tam-tam! Cower before the fearful majesty of the entire orchestra in the central climax!” Finally, I suppose we should add, “Beamazed by the skills and prowess of the conductor, whose guiding hand has set these wonders – and more – before you!”
Yes, Graham Taylor does deserve a mention – and with that exclamation mark! – not least because he has, to some considerable extent, drawn on relevant experience and played Odysseus as if it were a concert performance of a “choral opera”. Above all, he has made the performance alive to the ebb and flow of the considerable drama being played out before our ears. Somebody, some day, will do it even better, but this first one is more than good enough to be going along with, that’s for sure.
I wish that I could say the same for the recording. This is generally acceptable, being warm, clean, free of congestion and accommodating the hefty climaxes with ease. However, there is something amiss in the perspectives – although let me stress right now that this is only slight, and likely to be perceptible only by headphone listeners. I for one can live with it, though I’d rather not! There is plenty of width, but there is much less “front to back” depth – the choir feels almost to be seated in and amongst the strings. Sometimes, the choral blend tends to fragment, exposing numerous individual voices. Sometimes, notably in the patter-song of “shanty”, I can feel in the men’s voices something that I can only describe as a slight “corkscrewing” in the sound image.
The session photograph reproduced inside the booklet’s back cover shows the choir, seated in about three rows against the back wall, with a line of microphones running right along the front row. Extrapolating the picture, I think that there could have been as many as seven of them – which may be the reason for the lack of true pianissimi. And, without going into a pile of technical detail, I shall say, simply, that therein lies the cause of the other three problems.
It’s a shame that the disc couldn’t have been filled with more Arnold. For instance, a nice, modern recording of The Song of Freedom, even if slightly arranged for adult voices and orchestral “brass band”, would have been the icing on the cake. I would dearly have loved to hear what these Scottish forces made of it! That said, I very much enjoyed what we do get.
It came as a bit of a shock to realise that the Vaughan Williams piece is an “unknown region” to me. Contrariwise, I was not in the least surprised that it was love at first hearing! Its sophisticated, late-romantic sonorities and complex choral polyphony provide a nigh-on perfect foil to Odysseus, so much so that I would recommend programming the VW immediately before the Arnold. Graham Taylor fondly moulds the finely-spun, extended crescendo of VW’s mystical journey, coaxing some gorgeously blended singing from the choir – their lines layered and lapping, with nary an “individual voice” obtruding. Not that it sounds like they needed much coaxing, such is the warmth of their expression. Ditto, or its equivalent, the orchestra, which caps it all with a blazing, brazen affirmation. You know what? If I get to go to Heaven, I want this as my introductory music!
Milhaud’s piece was originally scored for wind band, and the composer made this orchestral arrangement, I suspect, purely to extend the work’s commercial potential. Whether you prefer the marginally extended palette on offer is purely a matter of taste. Still, it is a lovely, jolly work, and a fitting stablemate for certain suites of dances by Arnold! In the finale, unless I’m very mistaken, Milhaud follows Bizet’s L’Arlesienne in incorporating the lusty banging of a Provençal drum. The OSO under Graham Taylor steer well clear of any undue sophistication and render it as rude, robust, ruddy-cheeked entertainment, with just the occasional nod in the direction of tendresse.
The booklet, in English only, is graced by decent documentation, including all the usual details and the full texts of both choral works. In Odysseus, I did notice one or two minor discrepancies between what is written and what was sung. Rather less trivially I did wonder why – when we have the libretto – it was felt necessary to devote virtually half the note for Odysseus to a summary of the action, and again why the choral forces were omitted from the first performance credits?
Inevitably, there will be hardened Arnold fans who will have grabbed copies of this CD almost before they hit the shelves. Happily, there will be open-minded souls who will buy it out of intrigue. Sadly, there will also be many who will refuse to listen to it even if the only cost is thirty minutes of their time. Predictably, the reaction of the fans will be ecstatic. I watch with interest for the reaction of the intrigued, of whom many will be very agreeably surprised, and of whom some will even be ecstatic. I await delivery of a carpet under which I can sweep the last lot, for they will never know what a wonder it is that they’ve missed.
I applaud Divine Arts for this valuable contribution to the Arnold discography: Odysseus is indeed returned – to his proper place, before the music-loving public. Make no mistake, overall this is a sterling performance by Graham Taylor and his Glasgow cohorts. They sound as though they enjoyed themselves hugely whilst making the CD. I hope that they’ll be pleased to hear that, in spite of my pile of little niggles, I’m having just as much fun listening to it – and so, for that matter, should you.