> ARNOLD White box 8505178 [RB]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)
The Nine Symphonies (1949-1986)

Symphony No. 1 (1949)
Symphony No. 2 (1953)
Symphony No. 3 (1957)
Symphony No. 4 (1960)
Symphony No. 5 (1961)
Symphony No. 6 (1967)
Symphony No. 7 (1973)
Symphony No. 8 (1978)
Symphony No. 9 (1986)
10 minute conversation between Malcolm Arnold and Andrew Penny
National SO of Ireland/Andrew Penny
rec April 1995-Feb 2000, National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland (in presence of composer)
NAXOS 8.505178[5 CDs: 5.05.00] Superbudget

No longer available

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 Guernica.

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 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 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 instrumental colour.

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.

Rob Barnett

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