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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Complete Symphonies
CD1
Symphony No.1 Op.22 (1949) [29:27]
Symphony No.2 Op.40 (1953) [26:13]
CD2
Symphony No.3 Op.63 (1954-57) [31:13]
Symphony No.4 Op.71 (1960) [37:47]
CD3
Symphony No.5 Op.74 (1961) [32:36]
Symphony No.6 Op.95 (1968) [24:41]
CD4
Symphony No.7 Op.113 (1973) [38:04]
Symphony No.8 Op.124 (1978) [25:51]
CD5
Symphony No.9 Op.128 (1986) [46:58]
Sir Malcolm Arnold in conversation with Andrew Penny [10:35]
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Andrew Penny
rec. 10-11 April 1995 (1, 2); 11-12 September 1995 (9); 13-14 June 1996 (3, 4); 24-25 January 2000 (5, 6); 21-22 February 2000 (7, 8), National Concert Hall, Dublin. DDD.
5 CDs in slipcase; also available separately on 8.553406 (CD 1), 8.553739 (CD 2), 8.552000 (CD 3); 8.552001 (CD 4); 8553540 (CD 5) Notes in English, French and German
NAXOS 8.505221 [5 CDs: 55:41 + 69:07 + 57:17 + 63:55 + 57:34]

 

 


When, as a young boy, I first discovered Malcolm Arnold, it was through the composer’s own recording of the Fifth Symphony - with the Peterloo Overture and Cornish Dances - on EMI. At that time there was precious little Arnold in the catalogue. Even the symphonies were not full represented, although the last two were yet to be written at this time and the Seventh was still wet on the page. I managed to get the composer’s own version of the First Symphony with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as well as Sir Charles Groves’s beautiful recording of the Second but never managed to get my hands on Malcolm Arnold’s 1959 recording of the Third on the hard-to-find Everest label. During the last 20 years or so people’s attitude to Arnold has changed enormously. There was for a very long time an unhealthy snobbery working against Malcolm Arnold and his music. He was unfortunate enough to be a composer writing melodic works in traditional forms at a time - the 1950s and 1960s - when it was considered that being ‘modern’ for its own sake was the way forward. We hear very little of those ‘modern’ works nowadays but now we have three complete sets of Arnold’s symphonies to enjoy. 

Vernon Handley forged the way with his pioneering set for Conifer in the 1990s – his recordings of the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies all being world premières. I was fortunate to hear the Ninth come to life during my time working at the now-defunct National Centre for Orchestral Studies in London. I still have my old diaries from that time and, on 14 March 1988, Sir Charles Groves came to Greenwich Borough Hall – the Orchestra’s home – to conduct what was the first (private) performance of this strange new symphony. The BBC had originally commissioned the Ninth Symphony from Arnold for a 1985 première in Manchester. However, mental breakdown and other ill-health delayed the writing of the piece and it was not completed until September 1986, by which time a change of management at the BBC prevented the chance any performance being realised at that time. Even the intended conductor of the première of the Ninth was more than a little daunted by the unexpected new path the musical language took and declined to conduct it. Charles Groves took up the challenge and finally gave the public première of the Ninth Symphony on 20 January 1992 with the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. It is a shame that Groves’s death later that year thwarted any hopes there might have been of his recording the symphony he had so loyally championed. 

I was not convinced by the Ninth in 1988 and, although my scepticism has diminished somewhat, I believe that too many people have read too much into its stark, spare textures and the predominantly two-part writing. Arnold’s muse had more or less deserted him and his ill-health had left him a shadow of his former self. The Ninth is fortunate in having three excellent recordings that play to its strengths and minimally reveal its weaknesses. One of the principal problems with the Ninth is its imbalance. The long, elegiac and sparse finale lasts as long as the first three movements put together but I have never been convinced that its material justifies this. The bulk of the long duration of this movement is due to repetitions of its purely scalic passages. The final D major resolution has always sounded weak and somewhat forced to me. The other three movements again rely too much on repetition and two-part textures. This is taken to the extreme in the second movement where a single theme is repeated no fewer than sixteen times, a far cry from Percy Grainger’s ingenious Green Bushes – now, that’s how to get away with multiple repetitions! The nearest thing we get to the old Malcolm Arnold is the Giubiloso third movement. As Andrew Penny says in the interview after the performance of the Ninth Symphony, trying to squeeze a few words out of the almost uninterviewable Arnold, it’s just like a good, old-fashioned Malcolm Arnold scherzo. 

So, what of the other symphonies? The Ninth apart, I think it one of the most impressive series of symphonies written by a British composer. People that got to know Arnold primarily through his film music will be surprised – even shocked – by the drama and violence in some of these works. From the outset of the series, the First Symphony turns up the dramatic heat straightaway. Here is music of passion, a fair amount of pain and full of the big gesture. These trademarks will be found, to a greater or lesser extent, through the next seven symphonies. The First follows a three-movement pattern shared with the Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. The Second Symphony is much more relaxed in mood, although the second movement is one of those slightly menacing, shadowy movements where one feels there could be something unpleasant lurking around the corner. I have always found the slow movement of the Second Symphony the most Mahlerian of Arnold’s symphonic utterances. The performance here lacks something of the nobility of Sir Charles Groves’s EMI recording or Hickox’s quite funereal version on Chandos. The beginning of the finale could have been lifted from one of the sets of dances or one of Arnold’s film scores. But, as so often, there is menace in the background which continues to cast a shadow over the proceedings. 

The performances I know of the Third Symphony do not vary a great deal and Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland give a magnificent performance here. One of the highlights of this Naxos series is, however, the outstanding performance of Arnold’s most superficially ‘populist’ symphony, the Fourth. In the days before the BBC made Arnold an outcast, they commissioned this work from him in 1960. His use of West Indian percussion and rhythms came in the light of the Notting Hill race riots in London he had witnessed in 1958. Arnold wanted to do his bit in representing racial and cultural integration. I never warmed to Arnold’s own recording of the Fourth on Lyrita. It always sounded to me as if everyone had fallen into a vat of treacle, so slow and ponderous was the performance. Although on the surface the first movement appears very lyrical and light-hearted, the menace under the surface has never been more persuasively conveyed than in this Naxos recording. The scherzo is as gossamer and eerie as you could wish and the slow movement beautifully and sensitively done. The troubled and troubling finale hurtles along, with the explosion into the grotesque fairground music at 4:55 hair-raisingly done. A winner! 

The Fifth is frequently hailed as Arnold’s symphonic masterwork. I’m not sure I would argue with that judgement. It is perhaps the most well-balanced musically and most cogent of the nine. Growing up as I did with Arnold’s 1972 recording with the CBSO, I tend, whether consciously or not, to compare other versions to that. When I got to know Vernon Handley’s 1995 Conifer recording I heard new things in this symphony. Andrew Penny’s approach to the fifth is a lot more relaxed than Handley’s. This is most tellingly felt in the first movement – perhaps a little too slow and laid back in the Naxos version. The last two movements also seem to lack that last edge of urgency and I suspect that, in the end, Andrew Penny’s view of this symphony is simply different from mine. In the six years between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Arnold assimilated influences from jazz and pop music. The jazzy rhythms in the first movement afford Arnold a freer rein in the melodic writing, while looking back the Fifth symphony at the same time … to my ears, at least. The Sixth also provides a glimpse into the tormented musical world that would dominate his next two symphonies. 

Dedicated to Arnold’s three children, the movements of the Seventh Symphony are entitled ‘Katherine’, ‘Robert’ and ‘Edward’. The Symphony contains some of the most relentlessly troubled and violent music Arnold ever wrote and this is no intimate portrait of cosy family life. For me this performance yields in sheer raw power to Handley’s scarily relentless account. I have not heard Rumon Gamba’s version, alas. It sounds to me that Andrew Penny is underplaying the first movement, perhaps not quite believing the degree of ferocity Arnold injected into the score. This having been said, the climactic cow bell, directed to be played as hard as is possible, is wonderfully and effectively clangourous. The second two movements fare much better, as does the slightly less traumatic Eighth Symphony. The sudden changes of mood in the Eighth are very persuasively done by Andrew Penny and his excellent Dublin orchestra. 

These performances were all ‘recorded in the presence of the composer’ and so any details of the performances about which I have expressed doubts were, presumably, the results of collaboration between composer and conductor and so we go back to that old chestnut of taste. The Naxos recordings are all more closely balanced than Handley or Hickox. While this can sometimes reveal a little more of the detail of Arnold’s meticulous orchestration, I also found the recordings slightly ‘muddy’ in sound and this, I am sure, contributed to my impression of the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. This is not to say that the recordings are in most ways less than excellent, just that I would have appreciated a little more ambience in the sound. Again, a matter of taste.

There is some delectable playing throughout this series by the National Orchestra of Ireland – with some especially sensitive woodwind playing. As has been suggested in previous reviews, the strings do not always have the sheer weight of some other orchestras but one is hardly ever conscious of this. 

This latest repackaging is a little puzzling to me. The five CDs comprising this set were, of course, all issued individually (the Ninth being the first) and then, in 2002, in a white slipcase. This set is exactly the same, except with a newly designed slipcase which acknowledges Arnold’s death in 2006 – something that the CDs ignore, there having been no revision of the issues since their first release. The CDs even still bear their original catalogue numbers. That having been said, this is an excellent survey of the Malcolm Arnold symphonies from a conductor obviously very much in tune with the music and its messages. However, I think a trick was missed here to add perhaps another CD to include the early Symphony for Strings and the late Symphony for Brass, therefore presenting a truly complete survey of the symphonies, as the repackaged Vernon Handley Conifer series, now on Decca, has done. The repackaged Handley set is around the same price as these Naxos CDs and so this issue has some fierce direct competition. This is, however, the only set with the continuity of one orchestra and one conductor throughout the series. If you are like me, you will have been unable to choose and will, at these bargain prices, decide to have both. 

Derek Warby

see also Review by Brian Wilson

 

 


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