As I mentioned in my
review of Penny's 7 and 8 Naxos are the first to have encompassed
a complete cycle. The Chandos cycle champs at their heels with a
double disc of numbers 7-9. Naxos also pull off the coup of issuing,
in boxed set format, the complete sequence under one conductor and with
one orchestra ... and at bargain price too. Even when Chandos produce
a box it will not be a true intégrale because they changed 'horses'
- recording numbers 1 to 6 with Hickox and the LSO and then switching
to the even more convincing Rumon Gamba (any relation, I wonder, to
Pierino Gamba?) for the final three.
The years Arnold spent in Ireland (1972-77) are logged
in the last three symphonies. The Seventh and Ninth are not easy conquests;
at least not when you compare the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. The Eighth
is just as scarifying but far more approachable. Amid the angst the
Seventh still deploys turns of phrase easily associated with the English
Dances and Cornish Dances.
The Seventh is dedicated to his children: Katherine,
Robert and Edward. In the first movement it is typical of Arnold that
he uses a macabre fractured music-box ragtime (8.20) and the tattered
wraiths of more popular works like the Concerto for Two Pianos Three
Hands (Phyllis and Cyril). This is Arnold playing the evil clown-master.
Bernstein's brilliance is also suggested more than once and it is a
wonder that 'Lenny' did not take an interest. He would have made hay
with the Fifth in particular. Arnold is at core more of a musical soul-mate
to Bernstein than William Schuman ever was. Bernstein and Arnold also
share a Mahlerian interest. It may well be that the pioneering CBS Bernstein
Mahler cycle of the 1960s gave Arnold his first chance to hear many
of the symphonies. At 12.22 in the first movement of the Seventh a great
sliding tune is developed with an eye to lichen bedecked Hollywood studios.
This is a symphony with the character of night: daylight remembered,
if at all, from the vantage point of night. It represents a psychological
The late-Mahlerian second movement drifts like someone's
'Dark Night of the Soul' - the aural equivalent of a Francis Bacon picture.
A Bachian chorale-like variant (9.40) familiar from the first movement
reappears here (as it also does in the finale at 2.33) amid tom-tom
pattering. The music rises to the nightmare clang of cowbells at 12.01.
A gaunt trombone call also rears up which Richard Whitehouse, in his
notes, links with the role of the same rhetorical instrument in Shostakovich's
After two meaty movements (16.23 and 13.58) the Allegro
is only 7.43. Happy? Well, not directly. This is happiness viewed
through cordite-smoked glass from the vantage of disillusion and dissolution.
Again those terminal bells (negation not valediction) ring out dully
speaking of negation and decay.
I recall listening to the premiere of the Seventh on
a BBC broadcast with a friend and finding it off-putting. Expectations
were high - elevated by the Fifth Symphony (a master work - probably
the masterwork - of the Cornish years) then recently recorded
for EMI by the CBSO with the composer. It remains a tough proposition
and so does the Ninth.
The Ninth was issued first in the sequence and gained
very wide currency through Naxos's highly efficient and canny distribution
network. I recall seeing it in the Hügendübel bookshop in
Munich in the summer of 1996.
The Ninth recalls the inscrutable enigma of Nielsen's
Sixth. In fact the phrasing and shaping of the music seems often to
echo Nielsen. The first three (of four) movements are far from glamorous:
a sauntering casual vivace, a folksy carol and a rowdy giubiloso.
This does not have the indelible memorable quality of the First, Fourth,
Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies. The lento runs to 23 minutes
as against the 24 minutes of the other movements put together. This
is completely sincere, unglitzy - Mahlerian up to a point, mildly sour.
When the solo trumpet call out over the strings at 6.10, 10.56, it is
Arnold's trumpet (heart) that is calling out in grave and mournful lamentation.
The Ninth is dedicated to Anthony John Day who has looked after the
composer since the onset of his illness.
After the Seventh, the Eighth is almost a relief
though no soft touch emotionally speaking. In the first movement (5.30)
the business in hand is advanced through a Sankey-style marching hymn
which drifts into sharp focus and out into blur amid cordite and tears.
His film music meets the talismanic English and Cornish dances. In the
andantino a tender film-style tune floats freely. Note the lovely
oboe phrasing at 0.55 and the bassoon's sad legato at 3.53. The theme
is put through many colouristic transformations. A dance-style
Vivace forms the core of the finale. This is a very moving symphony
which is certain to make a direct responsive impact.
The Fifth and Sixth each partake of darkness. The Fifth
is a work of brilliance - psychologically, emotionally and musically.
For me it stands at the apex of the nine. Penny handles both symphonies
well though I still have a preference for the composer's own 1972 version
which can still be found on EMI Classics. The remaining four symphonies
are equally successful with the exception of the Second Symphony which
I find obstinately neutral in effect. The First is a superbly tragic
work echoing with Mahlerian atmosphere though in Sibelian attire. The
Chandos Hickox discs (1-6) have a characteristic brilliantly warm sound
which some will prefer to the impressive but slightly cooler analytical
sound brought to us by Naxos.
The Naxos recording shows no sign of cutting corners.
If it opts for a slightly closer microphone placement than the now deleted
Conifer with Handley we can rejoice in the intimate flurries of vibrant
If we ignore the three Sinfoniettas all Penny and Naxos
need to do now is to add a further CD including the early Symphony
for Strings and the late Symphony for Brass to complete the
picture. They could also let their hair down by adding the Commonwealth
Christmas Overture. There is also a pressing needy immediacy for
a CD of the Return of Odysseus and The Song of Simeon -
though the latter has been issued on a previous BBC label.
Naxos bear away the laurels at present with any reservations
centring, for me, on the strings of the NSOI. There is nothing inadequate
about them but there is no doubt that Arnold's music blossoms and blooms
more generously if the strings are lush. Naxos need only look to their
achievement if Regis manage to license the even more searching and richly
expounded Vernon Handley cycle from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. This
Naxos White Box is a most convincing achievement and is presented at
a price that should steadily and consistently sell many sets.