Simeon’s song in cantata form

by
04 November 2016

Roderic Dunnett hears a rarely revived piece by Malcolm Arnold

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FOR the past 11 years, Northampton has played host to a festival in honour of Sir Malcolm Arnold. Sadly, the composer died in 2006, midway through his eighties, and was unable to see the way this event has blossomed into a national event. But, year on year, staged each October, it remains a fitting, and at times positively explosive, tribute to someone whose remarkable output makes him one of the greatest achievers among English composers of the 20th century.

The Malcolm Arnold Festival, at the capacious Royal and Derngate Centre in Northampton, has a gift for digging out works by the composer which have fallen by the wayside — such as this year’s half-hour cantata The Song of Simeon. Sacred works, of which this is a lively if mixed-quality example, do not figure large in Arnold’s output. He is, of course, noted for his film scores, whether tongue in cheek — he wrote all the scores for the Alastair Sim St Trinian’s films — or serious (his Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as Tunes of Glory and Whistle Down the Wind are among the most celebrated).

But besides nine symphonies, almost 20 concertos, and umpteen overtures (of which The Duke of Cambridge March, typically rumbustious, was heard on this occasion) he did compose a John Clare Cantata, a setting of Psalm 150, and Two Ceremonial Psalms.

The Song of Simeon dates from 1959, in one of Arnold’s most prolific periods. The music, a little subdued, periodically lacks the flair associated with this composer. But it makes a good start, thanks to a very acceptable, indeed endearing book, by Christopher Hassall, one of the more sensitive, skilled librettists of his era.

From the outset, by use of muted trumpet and soft rocking woodwind (for “In the beginning was the word”), I was reminded that Arnold was one of the master orchestrators of his day: the sense of mystery is palpable, as also beneath the voice of Gabriel (sung engagingly by men’s voices), where lilting tuned percussion supports the angel’s voice as he addresses the innocent Mary (Beatrice Acland).

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A cheerful, lightly syncopated scherzo tells of the decree of Caesar Augustus, immediately followed by the holy couple’s arrival at the Inn. The initial reluctance of the Innkeeper and his Wife (Richard Moore and Katie Coventry) to lend help — the pair’s lines in lightly comic rhyming verse are skilfully set and sung in virtual recitative (with atmospheric xylophone intrusions) — is lively and entertaining.

But the arrival of Simeon (Jonathan Hanley, an exquisite tenor voice first heard over held strings) offers Hassall an opportunity for poetry of more substance: “I have known many seasons of opening leaves and falling, And am myself as a brown leaf soon to wither, . . . God is the wind that gathers me.”

This passage is lulled by gentle scoring, despite the raucous interjections of the chorus (in the manner of the mocking turbae of Bach’s Passions: “He is mad, poor old fellow”).

Hassall’s version of the nativity story gives special prominence to the shepherds, sung here with a jaunty liveliness: “Wrapt in leather jerkins, mufflered to the nose, Squatting by a brazier in the halfmoon light . . .”, they are over-awed to see “the moon turn amber red”. This is the arrival of “an Angel like a beacon on the tower”. After an interlude of unusual character, thanks to tuba and glockenspiel, then a boldly sung hymn (“On Jordan stream”), and a splendidly delivered spoken passage for boy soloist “Wake up, everyone. . . Simeon, where are you?”, the chorus softly evokes Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem and his presentation in the Temple; and the climax comes with Simeon’s declamation of the Nunc Dimittis, which concludes with a grand and noble doxology for the choir.

If the work was of mixed quality, original in parts but less striking in others, the ample team amassed for the occasion under the conductor Simon Toyne served up a well-rehearsed and persuasive performance.

They were there in impressive force: the Choir of St Matthew’s, Northampton, the St Matthew’s Singers, the Northamptonshire County Community Choir, the Malcolm Arnold Chapel Choir, and the Ely Sinfonia.

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