Arnold: Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8

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WORKS: Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: National SO of Ireland/Andrew Penny
CATALOGUE NO: 8.552001
Those who know Malcolm Arnold from his lighter pieces – Tam O’Shanter, the Scottish and Cornish Dances, the Hoffnung-inspired Grand Grand Overture (with its obligato roles for three vacuum-cleaners, floor-polisher and four rifles) – are in for a shock. The Seventh Symphony is bleak, violent, sour and disillusioned – at times it sounds closer to Schnittke than anything in the English symphonic repertoire. The thought of its being dedicated to his three children (Arnold even described it as a ‘loose musical portrait’ of them) is more than faintly disturbing. But it’s also a very powerful piece. The first movement is unique – an immense dance of death created by the brilliant manipulation of a handful of motifs and gestures and one bitterly saccharine tune. The other two movements invite – and can bear – comparison with late Shostakovich. As for the Eighth Symphony, it is haunted by reverberations of No. 7, but there’s something puzzling about it – the cards are kept closer to the chest. Still, this was the first time I felt like going back and exploring it. Andrew Penny’s grasp of these two works is deeper and more consistent than that of Vernon Handley on Conifer: the anger is more focused, and where Handley’s insight wavers in the Seventh’s slow central movement, Penny sustains the pain more consistently. That Symphony probably has still more to reveal in performance or on recording. But until the ideal version comes along, this new recording is more than adequate. Stephen Johnson