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This year (2006) sees Malcolm Arnold’s 85th birthday. While inroads have been made into the list of unrecorded works some still remain. The Cello Concerto is notable by its absence as also are the two operas (The Dancing Master and The Open Window), the Thomas Merritt choral work with brass band and the John Clare cantata. Until the arrival of this disc The Return of Odysseus had been unheard since its 1977 premiere at the Royal Albert Hall when the Schools’ Music Association (who had commissioned the work) performed it with David Willcocks conducting. The children’s choir connection links it with the Merritt work, first performed with children’s choir in Truro Cathedral, the composer conducting.

Written during his Irish sojourn, The Return predates the Eighth Symphony by three years and post-dates the enigmatic Seventh also by three years. It shows little of the composer’s torment and angst. The storyline follows that of the closing section of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’: Odysseus’s return after many years to Ithaca to find Penelope faithful despite pushy suitors and the havoc they have been wreaking on his home. The work opens in chiming peace. There is a superb surging evocation of the wine dark sea at 4:30. In a typical disorientating rollicking rum-ti-tum touch (7:24) the sailors sing of the episodes of Odysseus’s ten year long journey from Troy. This rhythmic and sharply limned music associated with the words: He’ll never come back! He’ll never come back! recalls nothing so much as Joseph Horovitz’s Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo. Arnold himself used something similar for the shepherds in the 1960 nativity play The Song of Simeon. It would have gone down well with the school choirs who first sang it. Later the suitors pick up on that lolloping jazzy tune and it becomes a hallmark of the work.

Arnold then recycles the Moody and Sankey tune from the Cornish Dances, later used again in the Eighth Symphony. A liltingly honeyed and sweet vignette of Penelope’s steadfast fidelity is lovingly portrayed by the women’s voices at 12:10 to the words For twenty years our lady Penelope. Before the music for the ruffian suitors returns with rasping rolling brass we get another glorious marine evocation. Arnold is fleetingly kind to the suitors in giving them some engaging unison singing that will remind some of Hanson’s Beowulf Lament (17:55). The moment of Odysseus’s identity being revealed coincides with his slaying of the suitors in a crazed chaos of ‘sprechgesang’ – like a panicked and louder version of the spoken round-dance beatitude at the climax of Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. The lilt of the opening pages returns with its sweetness and contented harp arpeggios in a touching lullaby for Penelope. Her years of loneliness end in the cradling arms of Odysseus. Not to be missed.

Let’s get the criticisms out of the way before moving on to the other works. It’s a pity that the Arnold is in a single track. At almost half an hour it would have been preferable if it had been tracked to coincide with the main segments. The selection of pieces is miscellaneous, mixing French regional with British early and late 20th century. True, all the pieces are pleasingly melodic. The playing time is just short of an hour so you might have expected another work. Set against this the world premiere recording of a substantial Arnold work for choir and orchestra and a world premiere recording of the orchestral version of the Milhaud.

The Milhaud suite must have had particular resonances as a wartime work completed at about the time of the Normandy landings. It is however a lightish piece here recorded for the first time in its version for full orchestra rather than windband. The movements are Normandie, Bretagne, Île de France, Alsace-Lorraine and Provence. The music is poetic and optimistic and the finale movement is memorable for its pipe and tabor ebullience. By the way, those frightened off by his later dissonant works such as the Fourth Symphony of three years later, need have no fear. This suite has more in common with his own 1936 Suite Provencale of 1936 and Moeran’s Serenade – coincidentally from 1944 – than with anything more forbidding.

Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region has been done before – most recently on Naxos by the RLPO Chorus – and with some distinction. I have never heard it done with such lithely blooming feminine qualities. Taylor and his Glasgow forces give it an ecstatic Delian glow rather different from the bluff muscularity of Boult on EMI (1970s analogue), the now rather dated sounding Sargent (1960s) and Lloyd-Jones on an extraordinarily intriguing Naxos disc.

The singing is very good with an agreeably soft focus around the choral contribution. There’s a notable unanimity of address by the choir suggesting considerable application and dedicated hard work at rehearsal.

As ever with Divine Art the notes are English only and are models of their sort. Typography is clearly legible. The texts are to the point and the sung words are printed in full.

An essential purchase for Arnold enthusiasts who will be richly rewarded by The Return of Odysseus. Milhaud fans will want this orchestral version of the suite. RVW’s following will be pleased to hear a more sensual version of Toward the Unknown Region.

Recording of the Month, February 2006

Addendum

Divine Art have written with one correction: The Milhaud is not strictly a world premiere: the orchestral version was recorded by Milhaud himself in the 1940s (dreadful recording) and also on EMI (probably deleted, not sold in the UK). Still it is the only modern recording!

—Rob Barnett