Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master

Utterly gobsmacked: a revelation!

Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master

For those of us brought up playing Malcolm Arnold's various sets of orchestral dances ad nauseam, this recording comes as something of a revelation. The Dancing Master is a work of depth, comedy, warmth, and pure mastery. Malcolm Arnold was renowned for his facility in orchestration and nowhere can this be heard to finer effect than here. But there is more than mere pleasant sounds afoot.

The history of this work, written in 1952 to a libretto by film-maker Joe Mendoza, speaks of one of the great missed opportunities. Both the BBC and Granada rejected it for being too risqué ("bawdy" was the word the BBC used). Their loss, but it did mean that the score languished pretty much since then. The basis of the piece is a script Mendoza had originally written for a film adaptation of William Waverley's The Gentleman Dancing Master. John Andrews, the superb conductor here posits the score "appealed to Arnold's taste for exuberant satire and tender Romanticism in equal measure".

It is an indication of Arnold's felicity as a composer that the score was completed in a mere fortnight. The performance history is sparse, however: one with piao in 1962 and onw with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales not long before Arnold's death. I'll let John Andrews introduce the main strands of the blissfully madcap story:

The characters are typical Restoration archetypes and the French-educated 'Monsieur' and the Spanish-domiciled father both provide opportunities for unrestrained satire. The plot is a fairly typical restoration farce with a young and witty heiress and her cunning maid outwitting her over-protective Aunt 'Mrs. Caution' and her dominating father to avoid an arranged marriage to a 'Frenchified fop' and smuggle a lover into her rooms on the pretence that he is her dancing master. All ends well; but not before a series of mistaken identities, attempted seductions and fights to the near-death ... it is a whilwind ride.

Just listen to the brilliance of the Introduction, the BBC Concert Orchetsra on knife-edge form:

You'll also hear in this excerpt three female voices of three different ranges; all of the singers are superbly chosen for the recrding. There's soprano Eleanor Dennis as Miranda, mezzo Catherine Carby as Prue and Fiona Kimm as Mrs. Caution. Also on display is the raucous nature of the score; it requires a virtuoso orchestra, and Andrews inspires the BBC Concert Orchestra to miraculous heights.

And as for lyricism, listen to this, "A Volume off the shelf I took":

That ability to shift moods on a sixpence is here, too; the very next track (Prue's "Lucky Miranda, she has a handsome proper young man") takes us to the pace where woodwind players with nothing less than razor-sharp reflexes will do.

Tenor Ed Lyon is a fabulous Gerard, and hear how he commands "Miranda .. Miranda, where are you, Miranda," an excerpt that perfectly encapsulates Arnold's Schubert-like melodic gifts:

Lasting some 76 minutes, the piece is compelling throughout, cast from strength (including the ever-excellent Graeme Broadbent as Diego). Surely this release will lead to a live performance, nestled with another one-acter deserving of resurrection? At the Royal Opera's Linbury Theatre? Opera Holland Park? In the meantime this superbly recorded, brilliantly performed disc is more than suffiecient. John Andrews' passion for the score shines through his conducting as much as in his booklet notes. Full lobretto included, by the way.

Completing our "opera weekend" after yesterday's Bohème, Arnold's The Dancing Master is a revelation! And what a salutary reminder of the gem of a band that is the BBC Concert Orchestra  when inspired by a fine conductor.

The disc appears on a fine UK-based label, Resonus Classics which was founded in 2011. My introduction to that label was a fine disc of Heironymous Praetorius on their Inventa label (probably not the Praetorius you're thinking of right now!); their entire catalogue is worthy of investigation. A link to the Praetorius appears below .