Arnold: Symphony No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Arnold
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: National SO of Ireland/Andrew Penny
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553540 DDD
Without preamble, Arnold’s Ninth Symphony launches straight into a spacious, breezy little tune. The reassuring sound of a full orchestra is given cheerful brilliance by the addition of a glockenspiel. But the ebullience rapidly tumbles away as the themes become spasmodic and the orchestration dwindles to a handful of wind instruments. Still, a sense of fun surfaces in the occasional cheeky glissando and the inquisitive rhythmic impulses. But then it is all knocked into oblivion by the sledgehammer blows of the movement’s closing bars.

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Given that the composer admits that his Ninth Symphony portrays something of the ‘hell’ he experienced during his prolonged breakdown in the Eighties, the disturbed nature of this first movement is not surprising. Penny lets the music speaks for itself, with clear, arid wind textures and a fiercely driven climax. But the most remarkable feature of this symphony, after a gentle Allegretto and a noisy scherzo marked ‘Giubiloso’, is the last movement. This vast, heartfelt Adagio occupies half the symphony. Arnold does not deny the parallel with Mahler’s Ninth, but his own vision, ‘a musical essay on the finality of death’, is far more despairing. Arnold’s theme, often repeated, is a downward scale of infinite pathos. Its Mahlerian cadences suggest a lush depth of string sound which the players of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland cannot quite command, but then I imagine that lushness was the last thing on the composer’s mind when he wrote this anguished music. Not even the final resolution on D major can mitigate the tragedy. Christopher Lambton