Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)
Symphony No. 7 (1973)
Symphony No. 8 (1978)
National SO of Ireland/Andrew Penny
rec 21-22 Feb 2000, National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland (in presence of composer)
NAXOS 8.552001 [63.55]
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I reckon that I might, just this once, be forgiven for climbing up onto my soap-box for a minute or two, so please bear with me. There's a question that seems to be on everybody's lips at the moment (July 2001), and that is why, in this year of all years (for those who need the hint, look at the above heading), there isn't even a single shred of Arnold being played at the Proms. The one thing that's on nobody's lips is, of course, the answer. I did rather wonder about this, and took it on myself to enquire of the BBC. In reply, I received the usual diplomatic straight-arm stand-off: "I am sorry that you are missing the inclusion of music by Sir Malcolm Arnold in this year's BBC Proms. In fact, his 80th birthday will be celebrated by the inclusion of his music in Proms in the Park on the Last Night [Big Deal!] . . . The Proms continue to present a wider range of music than any comparable festival, and this year many British composers are featured as part of our pastoral theme." For some unaccountable reason I was not entirely satisfied with this reply. I wrote again, repeating the substance of my questions and suggesting that as a licence-payer, I was entitled to some straight answers (so you can see how cross I was!). The questions were, in summary, "Why is Arnold STILL being shunned by our greatest musical platform?", "How can you possibly justify omitting him ENTIRELY from this year's [proper] Proms programme?", "What has he done to deserve such treatment?", and "Surely, haven't all the people that he might have upset retired by now?" I pointed out that these were straight questions that I have heard asked by all manner of music-lovers, from 'simple' listeners to respected (if not all internationally renowned) musicians, but all of them people who are, quite frankly, puzzled and disgusted by this state of affairs. Of course, there was no response at all to this second letter, other than the expected resounding silence. I had one other question, also unanswered: "Why is there a 'wall of silence'?"

We might well wonder. Nowadays, most things only have to show the merest smidgin of popular appeal and the Media and Big Business Boys roll out the Profit-Mongering Band-Wagon. Yet, here's our very own Malcolm Arnold, with a discography that is quite frankly staggering for a composer who has been "shunned" by the Musical Establishment for decades, whose music is warmly received wherever it gets played, who is pretty well universally acknowledged as a class act when it comes to brilliant orchestration, memorable melody, and punchy rhythm, and whose symphonies are every bit as bone-crunching as anything of Shostakovich's, in short as big a Band-Wagon as anyone could wish, so where are the movers and shakers? Somewhere - anywhere - else, it seems. In a world where even Wagner's music is showing signs (however tentative) of getting a toe-hold in Israel, you do have to wonder at the unfathomable attitude of our supposedly free and enlightened BBC. Yes, I know that Arnold will be "Composer of the Week" in October, and that the BBC Philharmonic will be featured playing all the symphonies. Commendable as that is, let's also remember that these will be studio recordings, and that "Composer of the Week" does not exactly command a "peak time" slot. No - it's good, but it's nowhere near good enough: Arnold's music is something of which we should be proud, not something that we coyly sneak under the counter. It really is about time that they came clean.

Diatribe over? No, not quite. If I were religious, I would thank my God firstly for all those dedicated amateurs who through the years have doggedly insisted that Arnold's music is of value. With due respect to all the other stalwarts, I cannot praise too highly the achievements of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Adrian Smith who, to quote Keith Llewellyn (Secretary of the Malcolm Arnold Society), have in the last five years or so been utterly unparalleled in their championship of Arnold. In that period, they have performed (take a deep breath!) the Cornish Dances, the Little Suite No. 1, the Second Clarinet Concerto, the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, and (incredibly) Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, and 5. To mark Arnold's 80th birthday, in October they will be playing the Philharmonic Concerto (and how often do you hear that played "live"?). If I may make so bold, that little lot is very much like what should have been performed at this year's Proms - what do you reckon? By the way, has anyone opened a book on which bit of Arnold "pop trivia" will actually be played at Proms in the Park?

I mentioned Arnold's impressive discography, providing the second reason for me to indulge in a little burst of Deo gratia, being strong evidence that there are at least some musical and recording professionals who show very creditworthy signs of being "free and enlightened" enough to invest both time and money (and possibly risk reputations?) in putting the music of Arnold before us. Of course, it's not as high-risk a venture as we might, in an unguarded moment, tend to think. They're not daft: as businessmen, they know that large swadges of musical punters love Arnold's music, and pretty well all of it at that. I suppose it's just that, as yet, a lot of them haven't quite woken up to that fact. Maybe they are suspicious - I know quite a few who are. Arnold's reputation as a "jester" is so dominant that willy-nilly it colours our impressions of all his music. Even the symphonies sound outrageous and wear a mask of superficiality, so it's all too easy to slip into the easy belief that there's nothing of note tucked away behind the "clown's mask". But, if you have so inclined and then out of sheer curiosity lift up the corner of that mask, you're in for one hell of a surprise, believe me! I am studying (inasmuch as that is possible for a "musical illiterate") the symphonies in some detail, and in all the five I have worked through to date have discovered layers of meaning lurking, coiled and ready to strike, beneath that all-too-easily digested exterior. All by my little self, I have uncovered a wealth of ingenuity, innovative (that'll surprise one or two!) structures and strategies, original or unusual symphonic processes, and emotions of a singularly personal, intimate nature (and, as I am wont to insist, if I can do that, anybody can). In this last Arnold is both like Shostakovich (although generally Arnold's symphonic processes are much more closely argued) and yet very different. Shostakovich, like most composers, speaks in "universals", while Arnold, like very few others, speaks at the rawest, reddest, "flesh-and-blood", man-to-man level - which can be a marrow-chilling, blood-curdling experience. How many composers has this Fair Isle produced in the last fifty years who can do that to the insides of a chap's head, then have him laughing his socks off fifteen seconds later? As it happens, most of the ones I can call to mind can actually manage both - though regrettably I must add "for entirely the wrong reasons".

Nowadays, Arnold's music is championed in the professional arena by the likes of Chandos and the ubiquitous Naxos (yes, we're finally getting round to it!). The conductor on the present CD, Andrew Penny (like me a Yorkshireman, though otherwise not much like me!), cannot be praised too highly for his selfless dedication to Arnold's music. This is the final instalment of his complete set of the Arnold symphonies (a total of five discs, and at a real Yorkshireman's price!). So far, he has never been less than fascinating while at his best (to my ears, especially in Nos. 3 and 4) his interpretations have been absolute belters. While it isn't strictly necessary for an interpreter to understand (whatever we take that to mean) the music that he's interpreting - he simply has to get the right sounds into our lug-holes - for so much of the time Penny manages to thrust, through the morass of transducers, wires and sophisticated technical digiry-pokery, a thoroughly convincing impression that he really does understand every note. I'm not trying to imply that he doesn't: it's just that many who do understand what they're conducting for some reason don't manage to convey that to us!

Penny's "band" on these recordings, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, has come in for a wee bit of stick, basically because they're not as accomplished as the Vienna Phil. - "strings sounding a bit thin", "ensemble not ideally polished" sort of thing. Well, personally, I'm glad they're not! Arnold's symphonies, in particular, thrive on a bit of technical discomfort - those bits where the players are struggling a little are also the parts where they are striving their hardest. It puts them that crucial notch nearer the corner of the performing spectrum occupied by "dedicated amateurs", and those of you who have ever witnessed "dedicated amateurs" with their collective fangs deep into the scruff of the neck of some fortunate work, playing as if their lives depended on it, will know exactly what that implies.

Of course, it would all be wasted effort if the recordings were execrable. However, our good fortune prevails: although different engineers and producers have been involved, the sound quality of this Naxos cycle has generally been more than acceptable - and often a sound for sore ears. Actually, I'd have been surprised if it had been otherwise. Having (for want of a more suitable term) "engineered" the recordings of the Slaithwaite Phil's performances, I have first-hand experience of a slightly less than obvious side of Arnold's technical artistry, which is that his orchestration simply sits up and begs to get into your microphones. You can, almost literally, stick a pair of mics. in front of the orchestra, adjust them simply to let the "right amount" of hall ambience leak in, and Bob's your uncle, the job's a good 'un! The only real danger is the temptation to over-egg your pudding, by playing microphonic acupuncture with the body of the orchestra. Who was it, in BBC Music Magazine, having extolled the virtues of minimalism in microphony, finished by boasting of making a recording of a large-scale work with "a mere" ten microphones? TEN! What on earth did he need all those for? This brings me neatly to my only real objection to this CD. Credited as Producer and Engineer is Tim Handley, well-known and deservedly respected in the business. Yet, although the general sound quality is excellent (and ear-wateringly excellent, at that), the woodwind are quite evidently "spotlit", in the grand old manner of CBS in the 1960s. In fact, on those occasions when he (or she?) has a solo, it sounds as if the first horn is making a special trip from his seat to the "soloist's spot" in front of the violins to play it (then nipping, with a commendable combination of "quick and quiet", all the way back again). But don't read too much into this, as it amounts to less than even a farthing's worth of tar, and a long way short of spoiling the ship. Look on the bright side - I did, drooling over the detail in the delicate percussion, the keen edge to the upper strings (that's the upside of "thin" strings - they can cut like a knife!), the earthy growlings and rumblings from the other end, and the relish with which cavernous brasses explored their bottoms (of their ranges, that is). Actually there's one bit, near the end of the first movement of the Seventh, where Arnold combines these booming bass brasses with the tam-tam to give a passable imitation of the Messiaen of La Transfiguration, though I'll lay odds that this is sheer coincidence. The sound, though, is positively succulent. Somebody, about now, is bound to ask, "Yes, but isn't the sound of the RPO/Handley on Conifer [nla] even better by comparison?" Maybe it is. But if you think that's going to bother you, simply avoid comparing them in the first place. Then, I really don't think you'll be at all disappointed.

OK, what about the music? Well, you should listen to it first, and certainly before reading the accompanying notes, which I would take with a healthy pinch of salt. Keith Anderson, who has penned many a Naxos note, provides a bit of potted biography. While hinting at the dark chasms yawning under the fragile, frivolous veneer (tread carefully, lest ye be lost!), he loses a brownie point for his "[In 1943 Arnold] volunteered for military service, but was discharged after shooting himself in the foot" - without even wondering why a "conshie" should join up in the first place, and then take such a drastic measure to get more or less straight out again (and, I might add, go back to what he was doing up until he got in!). Actually, it's worse: the wording even manages to imply that the injury was accidental rather than deliberate! I also wondered about Arnold's "film scores, of which he has written some eighty", largely because the last time I counted it came to "some one hundred and eighteen" (perhaps one of us had better check again?).

Following on, Richard Whitehouse's discussion of the music itself blends straight facts with interpretations that start out in the right direction but then, in spite of the occasional effective bon mot like "lacerating", pull their punches, almost breaking out in maidenly blushes when set beside the brazen edifice of the music. For example, having noted that the Seventh is dedicated "To Katherine, Robert and Edward" (the composer's children), and that the music has an "extreme emotional aura", it's a bit limp to simply conclude, "Whether or not the dedication conceals a deeper personal intent is something on which to ponder." Crumbs, that puts it on the level of deciding whether we're going to have Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies for brekkie. Perhaps if it were also mentioned that Arnold's symphonies, without exception, are tantamount to entries in his personal diary, and that one of those three children was autistic, and that in those days autism carried a significant social stigma, we might be encouraged to spend less time pondering on the "whether or not", and more on the import of this desolate and lacerating (yes, it is a good word!) music. We have it from Piers Burton-Page that each movement contains a loose portrayal of one of Arnold's three children. I think that we should weigh these words with care: this is not to say that each movement is a portrayal, so the question as to whether these movements amount to portraits "of savage cruelty" doesn't really arise. Any cruel savagery is I feel limited to what's going on within the composer's own mind.

The same goes for the discussion of the Eighth Symphony: it's fine to suggest that "the . . . character . . . suggests a parallel between the troubled history of the Irish people and his personal circumstances at the time - soon to collapse into a seven-year period of virtual musical silence", but it might have set that context more forcefully to point out that Arnold's life was coming apart at the seams, and that this particular period culminated in an (unsuccessful) suicide attempt. The closing comment, "the certainty of that conclusion, indeed the actual emotional character of what is being concluded, is left for the listener to judge" is also true enough but leaves me perplexed. For a start, it is qualified by "As so often in Arnold's later music" (my italics), which incorrectly implies that his earlier music was not lacking in "certainty". Has Mr. Whitehouse never heard the First Symphony? But, more pointedly, can you name me even one piece of music, by anybody, which does not leave its import "up to the listener to judge"?

Maybe I seem to be nit-picking. Well, dear reader, I leave that up to you to judge, but I would have thought that the booklet space would have been better filled with a bit more meat and a bit less of the two veg. of literal descriptions of the music. Bearing in mind what I have suggested about Arnold's musical character and the "life-dynamics" that drive his inspiration, I feel that the writer should have held off telling us what the music does, and risked more (or even "all") on telling us what the music does to him. And, in fair and honest answer to the inevitable fair question: I am in the process of putting my money where my mouth is, but if we go up that street now, we'll be here all week!

And so to the present efforts of the NSO of Ireland and Andrew Penny. The recent Fifth got a bit of a mixed reception, in effect varying between "refreshingly direct" and "underplaying the hand Arnold dealt him". I feel no punches being pulled here, and I've got the bruises to prove it. The first movement of the Seventh is graced with a hair-raising ferocity that yields little or nothing to the rivals that I have heard (notably Handley). That obsessive, maddening "Boom-cha-cha, boom-cha-cha" motive bulldozing its way through flurries of flesh-eating harpies sounds quite sufficiently nightmarish, an impact that is due in part to the lack of comfortable upholstery in the upper strings (another dozen violinists might well have spoilt it!). The vaguely bluesy music of the second subject, which would have fitted nicely into one of those old black-and-white B-movies where a "lonely gumshoe frantically searches the dark and drizzle-misted streets", is given just the right blend of romantic flow and aching urgency. Towards the end of the movement, this appears in the grotesque guise of "Kenny Ball and his Over-Indulgent Jazzmen". Penny captures its fun-filled yet fearful quality with peerless, stinging accuracy. In fact, throughout the entire disc, he seems ever alert to the expressive potential of the sheerly sonic opportunities offered by Arnold's electrifying palette. The notorious cow-bell is a case in point. Arnold requires this to be struck hard enough to bash its brains out, had it got any, a savage contrast with Mahler's treatment of the "instrument". Cow-bells, of course, are really designed to be played like spinets, which traditionally bear the legend Fait Plus Douceur Que Violence. Equally of course, Arnold was well aware of that - if he'd wanted it to sound like one of Wagner's anvils then that's what he would have used. Ergo, it's supposed to sound like there're rough hands around its metal throat, forcing it to produce a strangulated noise almost like somebody hitting an old galvanised bucket with a mop-handle. And, by golly, that's exactly what it does sound like here!

The second movement starts off, and generally continues, with a halting tread, an exhausted sound of desolate trombone set over bone-weary strings. As the music progresses (or is that "regresses"?) into Shostakovichian two-part strings, Penny leans on the incidental discords as the two lines, too dog-tired to bother avoiding each other, collide. We are transported to the Limbo of a Lost Soul, where Arnold is trying to tell us what his "personal circumstances" are doing to the space between his ears. The obsessive muttering of untuned percussion is commonly interpreted as being associated with Edward's autism, though few seem to note the sudden, isolated lashing out, extreme violence flashing out of nowhere then evaporating. The first time I listened to this recording, it gave me coronary palpitations (Should this CD come with a Government health warning?). The stealthy, insidious shift of atmosphere from listless dejection to evil menace and thence to wide-eyed panic is effected by Penny with horrifying vividness. Following the portentous symbolism of three belts of the mop-head on the old galvanised bucket, the final climax, a huge leaden slab of delirium tremens, melts into a tremolando slithering which, in Penny's inspired hands, sounds disconcertingly like slimy snakes worming and wriggling through the insides of your head.

After that little lot, the finale sounds positively prosaic. Seasoned Arnold-o-philes will of course know that he ever rings the changes. Think of the Fifth Symphony where, after the shock of the sudden, disastrous end of the scherzo, he launches an almost classical-sounding rondo - but then, after the enigmatic central episode, causes the materials to "rot away from the inside", craftily preparing the ground for that extraordinary denouement which is thus (contrariwise) a shock that we can see coming but are in effect "powerless to prevent". Something of that holds here. The main theme, a jagged, edgy march, seems to operate (relatively speaking) in accordance with classical "rules", but eventually peters out leaving eerie throbbing and muttering. A veil is drawn back, and we find ourselves in a sort of "music-box nightmare" (how many films have made use of just this device?), a miasma of jangling bells and muted brass, a dizzy harp and whirligig piccolo. Then the interjection of a beltingly good orchestral imitation of an Irish jig seems to clear the air, but it whirls itself out leaving us stranded, back in the clutches of that weird dream. Corrupted by this psychotic experience, the march returns as a monstrous threat. Again the cowbells toll, and the symphony dies in a dark blaze of implacable chords. Penny goes way, way over the top - which is, of course, the only proper approach to this music. He and the Irish orchestra are simply stunning.

What's the Seventh "about"? I don't "know" it all that well as yet, but my impression pro tem. is best summed up courtesy of Dante: the first two movements are Inferno and Purgatorio, while the finale tries to aim for Paradiso, but fails and falls to the Forces of Darkness - in the end, All Hope is Abandoned. In fact, the picture on the CD is highly apposite: doesn't it look like a concrete prison wall fronted by a series of wooden posts, the tops of which have been scorched black - presumably by something within the wall? I am, of course, presuming that we are viewing it from the outside!

Turning somewhat abruptly to the Eighth, we find an opening theme, very much in the "Rambo" mould of the First Symphony, set against a second subject that sounds rather less like the "Irish marching tune" of its origin (the music for the film, The Reckoning) than a cross between He Who Would Valiant Be and Onward, Christian Soldiers, and more than a chip off the old "Moody and Sankey" block! There are those who consider that such tunes, "common as muck and twice as thick", have no place in the hallowed halls of a symphony (shades of Mahler's Third!), even if they are integrated into the argument. Arnold, of course, in his Fourth Symphony, managed a supreme double-bluff: out of seeming bloody-mindedness, he stuck in a "Come Dancing" tune that sounded entirely gratuitous, provoking purple wobblers in all the ivory-tower purists. Except - it wasn't (gratuitous, that is): it actually played a vital role in the musical and dramatic structure of the movement. Anyway, interesting as that might be, it's time we got back to the plot! In spite of their similarly combative nature, this movement is a very different kettle of fish from the Seventh's first movement, for now (it seems to me) the second subject is not fighting a losing battle against the aggressive first subject. Arnold was not a film composer, but a composer whose innate style made film composing an inevitability. Here, as in many of his symphonic movements there is an almost cinematographic scenario bent to symphonic use. At first, in a manner similar to the first movement of the Third, the first subject lashes out at the passing tail of the second, but then turns to subversion, gradually diverting it from the paths of righteousness, so that when the innocent-sounding march appears in full at the heart of the movement it has become tainted with those aggressive characteristics. However, from then onwards the little march (secure in its faith?) gradually extricates itself and walks away, with scowling snarls (and maybe even the occasional half-brick) hurled at its receding back. When it is almost fully restored, a curtain of mist descends. Penny, in latching onto all of this - and the dream-like quality (almost a hang-over from the finale of the Seventh!) - comes up trumps again, playing out the unfolding drama to vivid - and utterly enthralling - effect.

When we come to the second movement, it is tempting to continue that analogy to the Third Symphony, although in the Eighth there is much less of that feeling of descending into the pits then working back up to a grim resolution. But there is something of that pattern! This movement begins on a sad note, regretful and uncertain. It meanders almost aimlessly through its variations until there comes a point where a feeling of waiting, of expectancy, emerges - and it is at this point that the tinkling begins. What sounds like (and certainly ought to be) a baleful memory of the first movement provokes a crisis, following which the tinkling is bolstered by a deep chorale and a distant snare-drum implying a "recession of hostilities". By the time that we're even half a bar into the finale, the Third Symphony pattern is literally screaming for our attention! Again, Arnold calls on a classical structure to represent "normality" - at least apparently, as the jolly skirling ritornello of this rondo is interspersed with three contrasted episodes, each of which in its own way is disconcerting (please, can somebody pin down the origin of the solo clarinet tune of the third episode - I can't, and it's driving me potty!). The final and most tutti furioso occurrence of the ritornello is overtaken by an even faster coda, a short, sharp shock of grim resolution, or perhaps panic from sudden realisation that the stratagem has failed. The bog-standard but battering closing cadence leaves us in no doubt - we cannot be sure!

Throughout these two movements, Arnold maintains his ceaseless flow of super sonic invention: be it horn duetting with tuba, or vibraphone with timpani, Penny doesn't miss a trick. At first hearing, I thought that the tempo of the finale was a bit - just the merest fraction - pedestrian, but let me assure you that I was thoroughly mistaken: Handley is too fast, as witness Penny's razor-sharp judgement of the accelerando into the coda.. A learned scholar might be tempted to ask, "Ah, but what sayeth the score?" Quite frankly, I don't know, and nor do I care. In Arnold's triumvirate, the composer sits in one corner, the interpreter in another, and the listener in the third. Each has his own part to play in this "social act" - and mine is to respond to the other two together.

Although initial experience might lead us to think that these two symphonies are "broadly similar" we find, as familiarity dispels ignorance, the two diverging. The "problem" (defined by Arnold's "personal circumstances") is perhaps the main point of commonality, but the sufferer and his responses have changed. Once you start to see the difference, Andrew Penny's acutely perceptive interpretations immediately drive in a wedge. Look at it this way: once you have accepted the slight but perceptible spotlighting the recording is superb, once you have accepted the (minor) limitations of the orchestra the playing is superb, and once you have accepted the "subject matter" the music is superb. That's not all that much to have to accept, is it? Like it or not (and some quite clearly don't), Arnold has the ability - and the sheer guts - to express with uncommon candour the sorts of rock-bottom human feelings that polite people keep behind closed doors, and with an impact that can be lacerating (I really do like that word!). This is uncomfortable, but also a rare and precious gift. With this in mind, perhaps the most fitting tribute that I can offer, on this final instalment of Andrew Penny's terrific complete cycle, is that he managed to scare the s**t out of me, and no mistake!

Paul Serotsky

Rob Barnett also listened to this recording

Approach this "approachable" music with caution - Arnold's Seventh Symphony merits an "18" certificate with additional warnings for the faint-hearted! Rounding off their highly recommendable complete set of the Arnold symphonies, Andrew Penny and the NSO of Ireland may well have saved the best until last. Electrifying music given highly charged performances - buy it, and be damned!

Naxos are the first company to have completed the Arnold symphony cycle. It has been a long and slow process starting with that most forbidding of works - the Ninth Symphony back in the mid 1990s. The wait has been well worthwhile. Naxos are not the first to couple these two symphonies; that honour went to Vernon Handley on Conifer CDCF177 (nla  but please see the review for additional information from LM).

Apart from the pedestrian issues of numerical sequence the coupling of the two works has other strengths; they contrast well. The Seventh is not an easy conquest; at least not when you compare the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. The Eighth is just as raw but far more approachable. Amid the angst it still deploys turns of phrase and long unblushing tunes you might easily associate with the English Dances and the Cornish Dances. The years he spent in Ireland (1972-77) are also logged in these two symphonies.

The Seventh is dedicated to his children (Katherine, Robert and Edward). It was completed at the home of his friend William Walton on the island of Ischia. Arnold had helped considerably in realising Walton's ill-omened score for The Battle of Britain a couple of years previously. The symphony was a New Philharmonia commission which Arnold conducted with them at London's Royal Festival Hall on 5 May 1974. The laggardly first broadcast performance came when the BBCSO was conducted by the composer on 16 March 1977. Since then it has been conducted by Handley, Groves, Penny, Hickox and Downes.

It is typical of Arnold that, in the first movement, he uses a macabre fractured ragtime (8.20) as well as making grim sport with the tattered wraiths of his own more popular works like the Concerto for Two Pianos Tree Hands (Phyllis and Cyril). This is Arnold playing the evil clown-master. Bernstein's brilliance is also suggested and it is a wonder that 'Lenny' did not take an interest in the symphonies. Arnold is at core more of a musical soul-mate to Bernstein than Schuman ever was. Bernstein and Arnold also share Mahlerian tastes. At 12.22 (I) a great sliding tune is developed with an eye to lichen-bedecked Hollywood studios. This is a symphony with the character of night and of daylight remembered from vantage point of night: a psychological Guernica progressing towards a grim finality

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 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 dull clang of cowbells at 12.01. A gaunt trombone call also rears up which annotator Richard Whitehouse links with the role of the same instrument in Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony.

After two meaty movements (16.23 and 13.58) the Allegro is only 7.43. Happy - well, not directly. This is happiness viewed through smoked glass from the experience of disillusion. The cowbell returns as a harbinger of dissolution in all three movements. Irish bodhran and whistles and the Celtic prettification of the harp make a frank appearance (like a lucid interlude amid a continuum of disturbing visions). Could there, I wonder, have been greater body to the Irish strings. Again those terminal bells (negation not valediction) ring out dully - speaking of decay.

I recall listening to the broadcast premiere of the Seventh on the BBC with a friend and finding it unforthcoming. 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 composer. It remains a tough proposition but worthy of persistence.

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. In this 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 and responsive impact.

The Eighth was commissioned by Rustam M Kermani Foundation and was premiered by the Kermani-supported Albany SO conducted by Julius Hegyi on 5 May 1979. Worth noting that Kermani's foresight and acumen also resulted in commissions of the Rubbra Sinfonietta and several George Lloyd symphonies The scorching first UK performance of Arnold 8 was given by the then BBC Northern SO conducted by Charles Groves on 2 October 1981. The First London performance came on 26 November 1982 when the Young Musicians SO were conducted by James Blair (whatever happened to him? He broadcast some exciting repertoire for the BBC in the 1980s - Havergal Brian Violin Concerto, Arnell's Lord Byron and Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies - and then disappeared from view).

The Naxos recording shows no sign of budget cutting corners. It opts for a slightly closer microphone placement than the Conifer and we can rejoice in the intimate flurries of vibrant instrumental colour.

This CD is a more than worthy peroration to the Naxos series. Who knows … perhaps Naxos will next be issuing all nine as a boxed set. I would place this cycle very high indeed - only one half step down from my all time preference (regrettably unavailable) the Conifer cycle conducted by Vernon Handley.

Rob Barnett

Chandos have just announced the completion of their Arnold cycle. On two discs for the price of one, Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC Philharmonic in symphonies 7,8 and 9 plus the Oboe Concerto (Jennifer Galloway). We hope to review this next month: CHAN9967

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