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.
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: