My plea that audiences should be given permission to like unfamiliar music is being answered in unlikely places. One example is Sony's Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Complete Conifer Recordings. The centrepiece of this newly released 11 CD box, which retails for around the cost of a single full price CD, is Vernon Handley's cycle of the composer's nine symphonies. These are supplemented by myriad other delights including concertos, overtures and the familiar Scottish, English and Cornish Dances in their less familiar versions for brass band. All the recordings date from the late 1980s and 1990s, and they demonstrate why the sadly defunct Conifer was celebrated for its commitment to recorded sound quality.
In recent years Sir Malcolm, who is seen above, has suffered from insidious marginalisation, whereby his symphonic masterworks are resolutely ignored, but his occasional pieces are programmed. Which means that a new generation of concertgoers is growing up perceiving him as a composer of amuse-bouches. To give an example, Sir Malcolm's A Grand, Grand Overture was played at the 2009 Last Night of the Proms, and his English Dances were given an outing in a 2013 English Light Music Prom. But there have only ever been five performances of his symphonies at the Proms, the last in 1994. This despite growing recognition of the worth of Sir Malcolm's symphonic output and its undoubted appeal to audiences steeped in Mahler and Shostakovich. None other than Norman Lebrecht has described him as "the major British symphonist" and Norman wrote this in The Companion to 20th-Century Music (Simon & Schuster, 1992):
A sniffy British establishement, suspicious of a former London Philharmonic player who presumed to write symphonies, crossed him off its agenda... he wrote music that orchestral musicians liked to play, and this counted against him with the intellectuals and managers.It takes something truly remarkable to make me agree with Norman Lebrecht. The music of Sir Malcolm Arnold is truly remarkable, and this new overview of his music from Sony offers a unique opportunity to experience its addictive power. So once again I advise, buy or live forever in darkness.
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