WORKS: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: RLPO/Vernon Handley
CATALOGUE NO: 75605 51258 2
With these two discs, Conifer is first past the finishing post in producing a complete set of Arnold symphonies, all of them conducted by Vernon Handley. By contrast, Chandos has issued six and Naxos only three. Doubtless other cycles will follow, for what these smaller, specialised companies have demonstrated is that Arnold’s symphonic literature contains some of the most diverse and fulfilling music from the second half of the 20th century. Witness the three recorded here. The Fourth Symphony was excoriated by critics because of the whimsically banal tune in the first movement and the fanciful use of exotic percussion. Now that we have rediscovered tunefulness, and with James MacMillan’s percussive excursions still at the height of fashion, we can hear such music as it really is. In the last movement there is a palpable sense of anarchy which, thanks to Handley’s unfettered spirit, is both crazy and joyful.
There is less joy in the Ninth, which Arnold has declared will be his last. The brooding pathos of the last movement is of Mahlerian stature, as are the tremendous hammer blows that bring the gently good-humoured first movement to a terrifying conclusion. With hindsight – and the benefit of such a powerful recording – it is difficult to see why the BBC rejected the score as too ‘different’ when it was completed in 1986. There is really not that much to choose between the nihilism of Arnold’s last word and the awesome funeral march of the Third’s slow movement, sandwiched between two skittish outer movements. Christopher Lambton