The first thing to strike the listener about this performance of Toward the Unknown Region is the forward placing of the choir in relation to the orchestra, a quite different perspective from that of the recent performance issued by Naxos coupled with Willow-wood. At first I thought that orchestral detail would be obscured, but the recording has been carefully engineered and virtually everything is audible in the rather dry and unforgiving acoustic of Glasgow’s Scottish Opera Centre. The performance is a fine one, well sung, well played and conducted with all the care and devotion this early work merits. Other conductors have perhaps moved on a bit more in the final pages, and still others have found a slightly more exultant tone in these same pages – one of my own favourite performances is conducted by Norman Del Mar in a performance dating from 1980 – but this is excellent stuff all the same.
That strange breed, Vaughan Williams completists, will want this disc and the performance will not disappoint them, but how much will they enjoy the rest of the collection? Milhaud’s piece, with no choral element, seems a strange choice. It is in five movements, three of them lively, jaunty, even rumbustious and two rather more pensive. Originally written for wind band, it is given here in the composer’s own orchestral arrangement. I haven’t seen the score, but it’s clear that the work was conceived for winds, the added string parts being mainly of a supporting nature. There is some lovely writing for horns at the beginning of the second piece, some strangely jazzy harmonies supporting the melodies of the fourth and a most engaging fife and drum-style passage in the jaunty finale. This is attractive music based on French traditional melodies. It will not frighten the horses and is extremely well played.
The accompanying notes by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris, whose biography of Sir Malcolm Arnold was published in 2004, state that The Return of Odysseus is the composer’s only work for chorus and orchestra. It was commissioned by the Schools’ Music Association and first performed in 1977 under Sir David Willcocks’ direction. Presumably by a chorus of young people. (There is a parallel here with Vaughan Williams’ The Sons of Light of 1951.) I have not seen the score of this work either, but I suppose that the work’s origin as a piece for school children explains the lengthy passages of unison singing, often with the line doubled in the orchestra, as well as the general lack of polyphonic writing for the chorus. One result of this is that the words are beautifully clear, important as the narrative moves on quite swiftly, and since there is only one tiny solo passage the chorus is the narrative vehicle throughout. I’m a great admirer of Arnold, particularly the symphonies, and respond as well as anybody to the composer’s wonderful gift for melody so much in evidence here. But I have my doubts, all the same, as to whether this work really demonstrates what the notes refer to as an “instinctive magic touch in the setting of words to music”. There are some glorious moments for the orchestra, notably a most vivid, ravishing and all-too-short evocation of the sea, but the choral writing often seems prosaic, the natural rhythm of the words suppressed rather that enhanced by the music. Nor will everyone, I feel, be so impressed (and amused) by Patric Dickinson’s text as are Messrs Meredith and Harris. Still, I have read several reviews of this disc, all of them highly positive, so no reader of this one should be discouraged by my slightly muted personal reaction to the Arnold piece. It receives, in any event, another remarkable performance, with a particularly outstanding contribution from the fine amateur choir, and quite clearly convinced all those who took part in it.