LABELS: Naxos White Box
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: National SO of Ireland/Andrew Penny
CATALOGUE NO: 8.505178 Reissue (1995-2000)
Listening to all these symphonies within a short space of time is a grim experience – not because of the quality of the music, but for the emotional desolation which runs through so much of it. The First Symphony of 1949 holds the seeds of all that follows, with its leaning towards minor keys, its often static harmony, passages pared down to one or two lines, and the use of intrusive popular idioms almost as desperate relief. The proportions of these ingredients vary from symphony to symphony, and so does the success of their integration. In the first movement of the Fourth, I can’t quite take the lounge-lizard melody which seems to have strayed in from a Fifties Eurovision Song Contest. But in the Fifth, after echoes of Shostakovich, Mahler and Bernstein (West Side Story) respectively in the first three movements, the last movement ends with a big-screen moment, almost as if Arnold is saying: ‘Yes, I know it’s cheap, but that’s life,’ which is so shocking that it works. Andrew Penny emphasises the bleak side of the symphonies, helped by a lean orchestral sound, and this plays to the music’s strengths. In the last three symphonies, Rumon Gamba’s speeds are almost all faster than Penny’s, but often not sustained with such intensity and tightness of phrasing. And sometimes he gets into trouble with the popular irruptions: the ragtime in the Seventh, or the Irish march in the Eighth need to be slower to make their effect, as they do with Penny. It’s in the Ninth that the differences really tell: Arnold wrote it following a prolonged period of silence after a nervous breakdown, and it’s bare almost beyond belief, with long stretches where only one or two instruments are playing, and a slow finale like Bruckner without the consolation of faith. Gamba makes the upward phrases in the strings too yearning, but Penny tells it as it is, so that the surprising major-key ending comes as total relief. You might want to cherry-pick Hickox or Handley (at full price) in the earlier symphonies, but for a one-off investment in the whole cycle, go for Penny’s unswerving honesty.