ARNOLD:  Symphony No. 5, Op. 74.  Symphony No. 6, Op. 95.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Andrew Penny, cond.

NAXOS 8.552000 (B) (DDD) TT:  57:17

Naxos plans to complete their set of symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold by the time of the composer's 80th birthday October 21, 2001. Featured is the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland with British conductor Andrew Penny. Thus far they have issued Symphonies 1 and 2 (8.553406), Symphonies 3 and 4 (8.553739) and Symphony No. 9 (8.553540), the latter the premiere recording of the work. The Chandos CDs with Richard Hickox and the London Symphony, (see review) only include 1 - 6, although this series will be completed with Rumon Gamba on the podium instead of Hickox. The superb Vernon Handley Conifer set (excluding No. 9) is not currently available.

Symphony 5, dating from 1961, is the composer's favorite of the nine. Its four movements are described in Keith Anderson's program notes as "a brilliantly successful study in aspiration and failure." The first movement features the ominous tolling of bells and brass with brutal climaxes. The second is one of Arnold's tributes to Mahler, an anguished funeral march followed by a mechanical, desperate-sounding scherzo. The final movement is a study in contrasts culminating in a grand-scale, passionate "Hollywood theme" in the strings (the same theme used in the second movement), which soon fades away to nothingness as dying out with softly tolling bells.

Symphony 6, written in 1967 is his shortest (7:13 in the new recording, 6:29 in the Hickox), opening with fragments of tunes tossed about with more than a trace of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story dance elements (could Arnold have heard WSS, written ten years earlier?). This is followed by another somber Mahleresque funeral march. The brilliant finale is highlighted by repeated brass notes, and triumphant bells at the conclusion, very unlike those that ended Symphony 5.

Penny's performances are first-rate, marked by virtuoso orchestral playing. Sir Malcolm was present at the sessions (as he was for the Hickox) and was pleased with the results. The Ireland NSO is very close to the LSO in standards of playing. Sonically, Chandos' recording has a larger sound stage with a wealth of reverberation; the Naxos isn't quite as opulent. A distinct advantage of the latter is brilliance of cymbals—the instrument has that crystalline shimmering sound so beloved by audiophiles. The Naxos recording is highly recommended—and I look forward to Symphonies 7 and 8.

R.E.B. (June 2001)