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ClassicsOnline Home » ARNOLD: Concerto for 2 Pianos 3 Hands / Concerto for Piano Duet
Composed in 1951 during a period of almost frenzied activity, the Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings is one of Malcolm Arnold’s finest concertos, full of technical display, melody, contrast and colour. The Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands) and Orchestra was written for the legendary three-handed husband and wife team of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. Unashamedly popular in style, the Concerto contrasts dark tragedy with meltingly romantic melodies, and closes with a brilliantly witty and uplifting rumba.
By Steve Schwartz
By Robert R. Reilly
Penguin Guide Key Recording
Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921–2006)
Concerto for Two Pianos • Concerto for Piano Duet
In 1943 Malcolm Arnold was at the height of his career as an orchestral player. But, as principal trumpet in the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a punishing schedule of wartime concerts almost every day in different parts of the country and a history of mental instability, his fragile psychological state was being tested to its limit. Indeed so severe was the problem that he was to suffer a breakdown. Recovery took place in Cornwall and in the family cottage at Capel Garmon in Wales. There he wrote his Overture Beckus the Dandipratt. In later life Arnold was to declare that its writing was a kind of therapy, "I had been very depressed and I think it saved my life". The work, written in sonata form, is often misleadingly described as a comedy overture. Despite the lively beginning and regular outbreaks of high spirits there are also, as so often in Arnold's music, passages of darkness and turmoil. The music at one point becomes almost totally becalmed when, as a surprise and relief the Dandipratt (an old English name for an urchin) cheekily re-emerges, triumphant, right at the end. Written at the age of just twenty-one it was a remarkable achievement. It became his first major recorded work (Van Beinum conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and signified an important early step in his glittering career.
Malcolm Arnold's parents both played the piano. Indeed they met playing duets, sitting side by side on their teacher's piano stool. Arnold's mother went on to become a pianist and teacher of some considerable distinction. His father continued to play too, especially enjoying arrangements of his illustrious son's film scores. Arnold himself was no mean jazz pianist, even though his early piano teacher, Philip Pfaff, felt the shape of his hands might impede progress. In later years he would often sit for hours playing pub and hotel pianos, entertaining both the guests and himself. As a young man he composed many delightful piano pieces as birthday and Christmas presents for his mother; his only piano sonata was written at the age of 21 and his large-scale Variations on a Ukrainian Folk-Song was written two years later. Thus it is no surprise to find a number of works for piano and orchestra among his large output, (though no dedicated 'Piano Concerto'). His eighteen concertos were all written for friends and each demonstrates his exemplary understanding of the soloist's capabilities – both musically and technically. As with all Arnold's work, there is always a subtext, be it a reflection of his personal condition, a comment on some contemporary issue, or a warm-hearted picture of the dedicatee.
The Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings was composed in the early months of 1951. This was a period of almost frenzied work. Arnold had recently completed his highly successful first set of English Dances and the enduring sonatinas for clarinet and oboe as well as music for nine documentary films and four feature films. It was also a period of some mental instability – he had just spent three and a half months recovering in Springfield Hospital, a Victorian asylum in south London, where he suffered distressing and painful insulin treatment, following a psychotic episode. It was inevitable that the music would show some signs of these extremes: with Arnold the music so often reflected the life. The Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings was written at the suggestion of the musicologist and Daily Telegraph critic Mosco Carner. His wife, Helen Pyke, was a concert pianist and together with her duet partner, Paul Hamburger, they gave the first performance (broadcast by the BBC) in August 1951. The same soloists gave the work its first London performance at the Proms in July 1953. The piano duet concerto is a genre that has attracted few composers, the management of texture and distribution of labours presenting tough problems, but Arnold rose to these challenges and produced a very fine work, full of display, melody, contrast and colour. The first movement begins with an optimistic march-like idea which is almost immediately subjected to all kinds of imaginative development. The slow movement is cast in one of Arnold's favourite forms, the passacaglia, really a set of nine variations over a repeated phrase (in this case a simple falling phrase first heard in the violas). The sections build in complexity culminating in an almost jazz-like like variation. Along the way is a most remarkable feature, an extraordinarily manic scale passage for the strings; here is a little of that Arnold inner turmoil as he battles with his manic depressive psychosis. There is also music that clearly anticipates his score for the Sound Barrier, which was to be written just a few months later. The finale is a rhythmic tour de force that mostly bustles along with relentless high spirits, but also includes one of those delicious Arnoldian bittersweet melodies in the middle section before the exuberant final pages re-assert energy and virtuosity.
The Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands) and Orchestra was composed in 1969. It was a surprising Prom commission coming at a time when the prevailing tastes of the BBC were directed more towards the avant-garde than the tonality and conservatism of composers like Malcolm Arnold. Originally entitled Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril it was written for the legendary three-handed husband and wife team of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. Arnold produced a real crowd-pleaser. Though his own programme note was typically pithy and non-committal there is perhaps a hint of fun-poking both at the modernists and those who imbued their music with a suspiciously deep philosophical meaning: It is in three movements and is written for a normal symphony orchestra seated in the normal way. While not attempting to plumb the depths of the great truths of life and death, I hope the concerto will sound brilliant and give some pleasure. There is no doubt he succeeded in that last wish - the performance, in August 1969, prompted a five-minute ovation and the finale was repeated. Significantly it proved to be Arnold's last serious BBC commission. The work demonstrates both the manic and depressive sides of Arnold's personality. The opening movement, for example, begins with music of a very dark, almost tragic character, but the central section relieves the tension with a most lyrical and seductive melody. The slow movement contains one of Arnold's most meltingly romantic melodies and the finale is a glorious rumba, brilliantly witty and uplifting, its style unashamedly popular. Arnold had stood firm, he was always his own man.
By the mid-seventies when Arnold wrote the John Field Fantasy, his personal life was becoming increasingly unstable. The family had moved to Dublin, but his second wife was soon to leave him and he was to make a serious suicide attempt. All this highly charged emotion did manage to manifest itself, however, in some of Arnold's most devastating music. The Seventh Symphony, the Second String Quartet and Second Clarinet Concerto all date from this time. There are several reasons which attracted Arnold to using a nocturne (the Nocturne in C major) by the Irish composer and pianist John Field. A Dubliner by birth, Field was also an alcoholic and went through a long period of public neglect, but, above all, it was for Arnold a reconnection with his mother who had loved the Field Nocturnes. As a little boy the young composer had learnt one by heart. The Fantasy was written without commission, purely because he felt the need, but it was inspired by the playing of John Lill. Like other works of the period many of the melodies are generated by ciphers. John Field, Dublin, St Petersburg and Naples (cities Field lived in) all appear in the music. It is a widely impassioned work in which the orchestra frequently assaults the piano, offering shattering rebukes to its beauty. Contrasts are often brutal and stylistic oscillations leave the listener quite giddy, but in accord with the violence of the Seventh Symphony, the Field Fantasy nonetheless ends in an extraordinarily affirmation of hope, when, in one of Arnold's most spectacularly romantic inventions, he presents the theme in a triumphant mix of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov at their most passionate. It is a disturbing but highly compelling work. The Fantasy was dedicated and first performed by John Lill in May 1977 at the Royal Festival Hall.
© Paul Harris 2007
Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris is published by Thames / Elkin
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ARNOLD: Concerto for 2 Pianos 3 Hands / Concerto f...