ARNOLD: Symphony No. 7, Op. 113. Symphony No. 8, Op. 124.
Symphony No. 9, Op. 128. Concerto for Oboe and Strings, Op. 39
With this superb set Chandos completes its set of symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold started in the mid '90s with the first six played by the London Symphony under Richard Hickox. The young conductor Rumon Gamba was chosen for the remaining three. Gamba (is he related to Pierino Gamba?) turns out to be an ideal choice for the project, already having to his credit several recordings of film music including one devoted to music of Sir Malcolm.
These are outstanding performances in every way. Gamba obviously totally understands the Arnold idiom. These final symphonies are the composer's most challenging for both performers and listeners (for more comments see the Arnold feature on this site). The opening movement of Symphony No. 7 is more "Allegro energico" with Gamba (13:15) than it is with either Handley on Conifer (15:54) or Penny on Naxos (16:23), with telling effect. The nervous rhythms disturb more than in the other performances. The second movement also is faster than the others (12:04 compared with 13:54 & 13:58 respectively). The final Allegro again is brisk (6:26), compared with the others (7:52 & 7:43). The savagery of this remarkable symphony, perhaps the most intimate glimpse into Arnold's psyche, is superbly accomplished, particularly in the finale when the Irish tune the composer's autistic son enjoyed (sounding ominous in this context) is introduced, followed by the clangor of percussionincluding the cowbell.
Symphony No. 8 isn't quite as dramatic as its predecessor, but equally desolate. In it Arnold uses an Irish marching tune he had previously used for The Reckoning, his final film score. The new performance is fierce, again faster than competing versions (24:34, compared with 26:41 and 25:51), although Penny's second movement Andantino is a tad quicker than Gamba. In the brief (5:39) Vivace finale we return to the Arnold of old, a dazzling orchestral tour-de-force although with an underlying sense of despair.
Arnold's last symphony here receives its third recording. The pioneer Andrew Penny/New Zealand Naxos recording is important for what it was; the 1996 Vernon Handley Conifer version even betterbut Gamba's, abetted by the glories of Chandos' finest soundpresents this sparsely-scored work in its finest light. The Mahler influence is ever present. The luxurious sounds of the BBC Philharmonic recorded as richly as they are here bring new dimension to the music. When the final D-major chord appears it is pure magic.
The symphony is preceded by a work of Arnold written in 1952 for Leon Goossens, the Concerto for Oboe and Strings, Op. 39, beautifully played by Jennifer Galloway, a member of the orchestra, an appropriate couplingalthough as each CD contains less than an hour of music it would have been possible for each to include more. One also might question why Chandos elected to issue these in a twin-CD set.
The BBC Philharmonic plays all of these works magnificently, with the many solos played to perfection, particularly Paul Reynolds' trombone in the second movement of Symphony Seven. Arnold's virtuoso writing presents many challenges for all sections of the orchestra, admirably met in these performances. This British orchestra is not new to the Symphony No. 7. I've heard an aircheck of a BBC broadcast of some years ago with Edward Downes conducting a superb performance.
Which recordings to own? Arnold aficionados surely will want to have them all. For the budget-minded, the Naxos set is great value, with admirable performances (and fine sonics as well), although the Irish orchestra cannot quite match the splendor of the British orchestras.
Kudos to Chandos for a job well done!
R.E.B. (Aug. 2002)