Arnold: Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, & 9 (CD review)

Also, Concertino for Oboe & Strings; Fantasy for Oboe Solo. Nicholas Daniel, oboe; Vernon Handley, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Conifer 75605 51258 2 and 75605 51273 2 (two separate albums).

Who says they don't write 'em the way they used to? British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) may have been the twentieth century's last true musical Romanticist. Certainly his prodigious work for film, stage, and concert hall helped him keep attune to popular taste. Although I believe it is still his Fifth Symphony for which people may best remember him (film scores like Bridge on the River Kwai aside), some of the others of his nine symphonies are worth consideration as well. This is especially true as time passes, and we notice how little of lasting importance anyone else has contributed over the past fifty years. Vernon Handley's Conifer recordings of Arnold's symphonies should go far in bringing the composer's music to an even wider audience.

Here, we consider two separate albums: The first of the recordings includes the Third Symphony (1957) and is, frankly, the least important of the three symphonies under review, yet in its own way it is the most accessible. It does nothing extraordinary, save perhaps in its use of an unusual three-movement format. It is mostly pastoral, lightweight, and upbeat. It makes for pleasant, relaxed, largely unchallenging listening.

The Fourth Symphony (1960), on the other hand, is full of contrasts. It begins with an Allegro using a good deal of Central and South American percussion to play what is essentially a calypso-type jazz tune. Was Arnold's film music background showing? The fast movement that follows also uses a Caribbean percussion section, although to more symphonic effect. The slow Andantino returns us to a feeling of calm, but then the finale pitches us headlong into something I can only describe as sheer anger! Toward the end, a march bursts forth, winding down only in the last minutes. It's quite a ride, and Arnold may have written it to say something about his attitudes toward race relations. The two symphonies together on one disc provide a good overview of the composer's many talents and tempers.

On the second album we have the Ninth Symphony (1992), which Sir Malcolm said was to be his last composition. Whether it was age or superstition that led him to such a pronouncement is unclear. Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and Mahler all ended their symphonic creations on number nine. Be that as it may, Arnold's Ninth seems an appropriate conclusion to his symphonic output. It is essentially tragic in its outlook, with only a closing moment in the long, slow, Mahler-like finale to bring us around to anything like sweetness or light. Accompanied by several charming oboe works, this disc, too, provides a good, all-around glimpse of the composer's many moods.

Conifer's sound in both discs is understandably alike, their having been recorded only a couple of months apart in the spring and summer of 1996, although in different venues. The sonics are clear and natural, warm and winning, without being as transparent or dynamic as they could be. Imaging, particularly front to back, is good; deep bass is present but not prominent; highs are airy but not pronounced. It is audio that serves the music; it will go unnoticed by most listeners, unlike some audiophile sound that can unintentionally draw notice to itself. Arnold devotees will want both discs, if they don't already have them. New listeners, though, might want to start with Nos. Three and Four.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa