Arnold: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (CD review)

Andrew Penny, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. Naxos 8.552001.

Twentieth-century English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) wrote a multitude of film scores (The Captain's Paradise, Hobson's Choice, Trapeze, Island in the Sun, The Bridge on the River Kwai, etc.), and as a result people often think of him only as a composer of light music. But his nine symphonies and many overtures and marches show us a musician who could move from the serene to the rollicking and from the sublime to the ridiculous in grand fashion. Arnold was a kind of throwback to another era, a Romanticist in the Modern Age, a man whose music could be serious but never self-righteous. That said, the two symphonies recorded here represent Arnold's more earnest and more darkly creative side.

The Seventh Symphony (1973) opens with a long, colorful, somewhat rambunctious, and vaguely ominous movement that makes us wonder where its sudden jazz infusion comes from. It turns out it's a leftover from Arnold's Sixth Symphony, just one of many connections his admirers make in showing the coherence of the man's complete symphony cycle. The second movement comes out of left field with a beautifully evocative mood, followed by an odd, cantankerous finale. The fact that most of it holds together so well is a tribute to the composer's musical imagination and skill.

Andrew Penny
The much shorter Eighth Symphony (1978), about twenty-five minutes, is probably more characteristic of the man. It's sprightlier and more optimistic, although it, too, finds room for odd, sometimes discordant tones. Listeners have enjoyed its Irish march as well (which originated in one of the film scores Arnold wrote), the music itself probably a result of Arnold's having lived in Ireland for a while.

Maestro Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland perform both works in precise terms, leaning heavily to clarification rather than overt dramatics. It's probably the best way to perform the music, leaving the histrionics to the scores themselves without unduly emphasizing them. The results are as felicitous as one could desire.

The Naxos engineers provide a clear, true sound for the 2001 recording. The clarity does come at the expense of a small degree of brightness, however, that some playback systems may tend to exacerbate. The recording also provides a good separation of instruments, but one could also interpret this as a degree of compartmentalization. In any case, I enjoyed the disc's sonic character, especially its lucidity, because it seems to me that Arnold's music benefits from an extra bit of illumination.

In all, we get a pleasant and in some ways stimulating musical coupling, framed in clean, modern digital sound, and costing a relative pittance. Interesting stuff.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

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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