Gramophone

Commissioned by the Schools’ Music Association, the 1976 cantata The Return of Odysseus comprises (and this does come as something of a surprise) Sir Malcolm Arnold’s sole composition for chorus and orchestra. It’s an approachable and lusty affair, whose pleasures are enhanced by Patric Dickinson’s skilful and witty condensation of Homer’s epic poem (the entire setting clocks in at well under half an hour). Although chronologically flanked by the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the piece conveys little of their troubled demeanour; indeed, the music radiates a healthy, unaffected vigour, and there’s plenty of catchy, dramatic and touching inspiration along the way (it must have been a terrific “sing” for the children’s chorus who first performed it under Sir David Willcocks). Graham Taylor secures a lively, spirited account of this enjoyable discovery, but the sound could have benefited from greater depth and bloom (the chosen acoustic, too, is on the cramped side). No matter, fans of Sir Malcolm (who will be 85 this October) needn’t tarry.

Milhaud’s bracing Suite Française may seem a curious choice of coupling but there is a link of sorts with the Arnold in that the work grew out of a request from a publisher for a work suitable “for a school band”. Even better, Taylor and his Scottish opera forces enterprisingly give us Milhaud’s rarely heard version for full orchestra. Why we don’t encounter this delectably tuneful and tangy gem more often remains a mystery.

A sturdy rendering of Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region (not as gripping as Lloyd-Jones’s recent RLPO account for Naxos, coincidentally coupled with another cantata written for the Schools’ Music Association, VW’s The Sons of Light) rounds off a likeable if not terribly generous programme

—Andrew Achenbach