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Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
The Malcolm Arnold Edition - Decca Universal
Volume 1 – The Eleven Symphonies

Symphony for Strings, Op.13 (1946) [20:17]
Symphony No.1, Op.22 (1950) [27:16]
Symphony No.2, Op.40 (1953) [29:33]
BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley (strings)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley

Symphony No.3, Op.63 (1957) [31:08]
Symphony No.4, Op.71 (1960) [37:24]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley

Symphony No.5, Op.74 (1961) [30:43]
Symphony No.6, Op.95 (1967) [26:41]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Symphony No.7, Op.113 (1973) [37:40]
Symphony No.8, Op.121 (1979) [26:27]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Symphony for Brass Instruments (1972) [22:49]
Symphony No.9, Op.128 (1984) [48:50]
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
DECCA UNIVERSAL 4765337 [5CDs: 77:16 + 68:32 + 57:44 + 64:38 + 71:54]

21 October 2006 would have been the 85th birthday of Sir Malcolm Arnold an event a trio of Decca boxed sets was to have celebrated. In fact the composer died on 23 September; just one month short of celebrations which included the Arnold Festival given in his birthplace in Northampton.

If you are at all interested in Arnold’s music these are recordings you will want to have. In short, work-for-work, there is no competition. The closest you get is the now deleted Naxos White Box of the nine numbered symphonies (NSO Ireland/Andrew Penny) 8.505178 review This was from the same orchestra (different conductor, Robert Houlihan) who played substantial; extracts from the symphonies on the Tony Palmer DVD Toward the Unknown Region of Arnold’s life. review and review. You can probably pick up the individual Naxos discs easily enough and the Naxos Ninth also has the composer in discussion with Andrew Penny.

The present five disc set is one of three boxes returning to the shelves the splendid 1990s Conifer recordings made by the label’s former Director of Artists and Repertoire John Kehoe. It’s all the more remarkable that this is done at bargain price.

The three sets comprise: vol. 1 5CDs 476 5337: The Eleven Symphonies (that’s all but comprehensive – the nine numbered symphonies conducted by Vernon Handley plus the Symphony for Brass and the Symphony for Strings) vol. 2 4CDs 476 5343: Seventeen Concertos; vol. 3 4CDs 476 5348: orchestral, brass and piano music. . The only compromise is that you lose Piers Burton-Page’s detailed commentaries that were such a pillar of the individual 1990s discs. The notes in the Decca boxes are by John Kehoe, Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. They are very compressed though they certainly tackle the essentials. They do so with the authority of the mastermind of the Conifer project and the two authors who have charted the deeply-scored triumphs and tragedies of Arnold’s life.

The three boxes represent a stunning achievement. The Edition is the largest-ever collection of Arnold’s concert music, with 61 works spread across three volumes and 13 discs. It’s a resounding triumph for Decca Universal. In the case of this symphonies box Decca have added the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble’s world premiere recording of the gaunt and forbidding Symphony for Brass. This is the only Decca analogue presence in what is otherwise indebted to digital encodings from Conifer.

The other thing that makes this set so gratifying is that many of the individual discs issued by Conifer were only available very briefly in the 1990s before the label was deleted wholesale. In particular you do not often come across secondhand copies of the Conifer discs of symphonies 1 and 5 (75605 51257 2), 3 and 4 (75605 51258 2), or 9 (75605 51273 2).

Arnold wrote two symphonies outside the numbered canon. The earliest was the Symphony for Strings (drawn from Conifer 75605 51298 2) and, from 1970, a Symphony for Brass Instruments written for fellow trumpeter Philip Jones and the brass ensemble that bore his name: PJBE, virtuosos every one. It is good that the symphony is played here by its dedicatees. When originally released on LP (Argo ZRG906) it was coupled with various other contemporary brass pieces including ones by Leonard Salzedo Capriccio for Brass Quintet Op. 90 and Raymond Premru Music from Harter Fell. Recording standards are well up to the excellence of Decca-Argo's 1979 vintage and no one needs to worry about the analogue origins - FFRR with a vengeance! The Symphony is tough with few concessions - listen to the gritty Andante con moto. It is a natural companion to the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies except in the silver buffoonery of the Allegro con brio which links across to the brio movement of the Brass Quintet. It is a work that has the same ecstatic-depressive dimension found in his contemporary masterpieces of the Cornish years: the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Cornish Dances.

The other unnumbered symphony featured here is the Symphony for Strings. It’s a very early piece from the middle years of the Second World War. Fully characteristic it is threaded through with gestures we later came to recognise as essentially Malcolm Arnold. They’re all there: pizzicato deployed to release or escalate tension, sudden bursts of jerky furioso, sentimental tunes escaped from a cinematic argot, gracious Finzian sighs and deadly serious gritty Bartokian austerity. It’s by no means an ingratiating work.

The tragic and tensely Sibelian First Symphony was recorded by the composer conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1979. It was issued on LP as EMI Classics ASD3823. The work was premiered by the composer conducting the Hallé at the Cheltenham Festival in 1951. You can hear that Bournemouth EMI recording if you can find CDM 7 64044 2. Rather like the composer’s Lyrita recording of his Fourth Symphony [review review]it is taken at a slow pace (39:08) as if the composer was relishing the memories, joys and pains reflected in each bar. For me that recording is something special and it’s the version by which I came to know the piece. Compare this with the less plangent and certainly speedier Naxos version at 28:27 and the vivid and explosively recorded 30:13 of Hickox/LSO on Chandos CHAN 9335. The trouble with these is that they almost sound perfunctory after the composer’s tranced, slow motion, gaze into the this Sibelian dynamo of the emotions. Handley is even more urgently whipped forward and Tapiola-stormy. He takes the RLPO through the work in 27:12 – the fastest by far. Yet it works … and the recording is extraordinarily rich and multi-layered. Just listen to the discreetly chattered horn fanfare at 02:00. Shortly after, one wonders at 2:35, whether the very recent example of his great friend Walton in the pre-Battle morning stirrings of the Henry V film music had lodged in his mind.

The Second Symphony has had far more recordings than the First. Its first outing had the composer conducting the RPO on Philips LP NBL5021. Perhaps someone will rescue that recording to give us the younger composer’s perspective on his own work. Like Martinu’s Second this is the composer’s pastoral symphony, not that it is without exhilarating virtuosity – especially in the lilting birdsong and silkily confiding writing of the first movement. Of all the works, this is the one that shares most with the English Dances and you can hear that voice in the first, second and fourth movements. Handley is frankly superb although once again things go with a fast swing – a tendency also noted in his award-winning Chandos recordings of the Bax symphonies. He is aided and abetted in style by the golden virtuosity of the RLPO brass. I liked his slowish Lento (III) much more than Penny’s Naxos (27:13) counterpart. That said, once again the Naxos sound, though excellent, slightly lacks the immediacy of the Conifer original. Then again the sweetest sound and the cheekiest lilt comes from the 1976 EMI analogue for the Bournemouth Orchestra, again with Charles Groves (27:42). At 31:02 Hickox delivers the slowest version. His Lento at 13:51 becomes becalmed although I rather wonder if the composer would not have taken it at just this pace had he recorded it in the 1970s or 1980s.

The Third Symphony I recall finding quite difficult at first hearing but for all its torment and protest it is now much easier to follow. Its Sibelian chatter and chilly curvaceous themes - try the Lento for echoes of Sibelius 4 - have now fallen into sharp focus. I went back to the first commercial recording of this work which was written between 1954 and 1957. This has the composer conducting his own orchestra, the LPO, and taking the 34:38. Originally this was issued on an Everest LP with the benefits of 35mm film recording and it really shows in the staggering realism of the recording with its biting brass and percussion let alone the suave and swooning woodwind and warm string sound. Oldsters may recall the garish LP cover with its Highland tartan clad legs, sgian dubh and crossed swords – the latter relating to the coupling: the first recording of the Scottish Dances. You can hear it now if you can find Phoenix PHCD102. It’s well worth the trouble. The sound for Hickox on CHAN 9290 is more sophisticated and the depth of the soundstage is more realistic with a sense of depth not just breadth although the agreeable stereo spread of the Phoenix-Everest original is lost. Hickox is a shade faster in the first and third movements and half a minute slower in the central Lento. Overall he is 33:43 against Handley and the orchestra for which he wrote the symphony, the RLPO, who take 31:20. I do feel that Handley could with advantage have allowed more light and air between the notes especially in the finale. It is all highly enjoyable though and gives a different spin to this wonderful piece. The Naxos/Penny version is of a piece with the Handley although Handley shades it by a very slight margin on recording quality – to do with the forwardness and immediacy of the sound.

Then we come to the Fourth Symphony a work of the lightest and liltingly sweetest tunes – often accompanied by overtones of 1950s MOR - and of explosive full-square eruptions from brass and percussion. We also hear Caribbean steel band sonorities in much the same way as they appear in the glorious Commonwealth Christmas Overture. Here Penny and his Irish orchestra relish the opportunity for display as do Hickox and the LSO (Chandos CHAN9290) although here the sound quality is not as immediate as that achieved by Chris Craker in Dublin for Naxos. Hickox takes 40:36 against Penny’s 37:36 and Handley’s 37:09.

The Fourth was premiered by the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 2 November 1960 and that broadcast was issued on a pirated LP (Aries LP1622). With all the confidence of the creator of the music and a late-Bernstein sense of encompassed time the composer took an elephantine 54:11 for his 1980s digital recording on Lyrita SRCD 2000 review review. The orchestra was ‘his own’ LPO but forty years on from when he had been principal trumpet. The recording has a remarkable and gripping impact and the experience of hearing the work extended by more than fifteen minutes beyond what you hear with Handley has fascination. The music takes on a dreamy almost psychedelic imagery which is far from disagreeable. It would be good to compare how Arnold conducted this work at its 1960 premiere; I cannot believe he took the oompah-oompah-pah ostinato at 4:10 (Lyrita) at quite that italicised pace.

The Fourth surfaced with a BBC orchestra at the time when William Glock’s grip was tight. The Fifth Symphony, written from the heart – and a deeply troubled one at that - in a style guaranteed to displease the artistic bureaucracy and academic elite of the time faced even more of a struggle. It was completed in 1960, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival – still welcoming at that stage - but not given its first BBC radio performance until 1 May 1967. The Fifth is amongst the finest Arnold. With the First and the Eighth it is a good place to start your exploration of the Arnold symphonies. It was the last of the symphonies that the composer himself was able to conduct complete. Its inspiration was found in the deaths of four close friends and the shuddering end of his first marriage. We can hear Arnold directing the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on a now long deleted EMI CD CDM 7 63368 2. In sessions at De Montfort Hall, Leicester University in June 1972 he takes 33:18 by comparison with Penny’s 32:37. The CBSO original was first issued on LP as ASD 2878 with the Four Cornish Dances and the inconsequential Peterloo Overture. Penny’s is a strong account and as ever with this Naxos set there are many imaginative touches including the affectionately insinuating way the symphony starts. The Hickox is not far off the norm at 32:34 and this time is captured (with the Sixth Symphony) in superb Chandos sound on CHAN9385. After this issue Hickox dropped the cycle or Chandos dropped Hickox; I do not know which. It was left to the wonderful Rumon Gamba to complete the cycle - he was recently heard in eager and delightful form at BBC Manchester conducting George Lloyd’s epic Fourth Symphony. Handley on Decca is quick but by no means the fleetest of foot at 30:41. This is only felt as hasty in the first movement where some of the music-box nostalgia sounds breathless. Otherwise this is a superb performance beautifully recorded as is, best of all from an audio viewpoint, the version on ClassicO CLASSCD 294 by Douglas Bostock – like Handley a pupil of Boult review. This takes a stunningly driven 29:54. The quality of the recorded image taken down by Jiri Gemrot and Jan Lzicar in Munich is up there with the exalted work of Lyrita for the Fourth Symphony.

Mordant, responsive sound across the spectrum is typical of the Handley-Decca set and this comes through as well in the Sixth Symphony which dates from Arnold’s period in Cornwall at St Merryn. The disused tin mines of the Cornish Dances - and something darker haunting his own mind - can be heard in the shifting tonalities and inimical shadows of the middle lento. Strangely enough the aspect of blurted-out jollity at the start of the finale is reminiscent of the euphoria of the finale of the Fourth Symphony of George Lloyd - the Cornish-born composer. However, there are some typically Mahlerian moments such as the terrifically powerful downward stabbing figures from the brass in the first movement set against a strong line of terrifically pained intensity in the strings. For all that Lloyd’s Fourth Symphony was prompted by the horrors of the Arctic convoys there is little appearance of angst in that symphony. In Arnold’s Sixth it is unmistakable – and of such penetration that it recalls Shostakovich. There was more to come in the symphonies 7 and 9. Handley and the Conifer engineering team catches the Sixth with great fidelity. Penny, who is once again rather well recorded, takes a too-pressed 24:41 as against Handley’s 26:51 and Hickox’s 25:13, sumptuously recorded Chandos version on CHAN 9385. I prefer Handley for his interpretative strengths in this searing yet far from forbidding symphony.

The years Arnold spent in Ireland (1972-77) are logged in the last three symphonies. The Seventh and Ninth are not easily accessible; at least not by the side of symphonies Four, Five and Six. The Eighth is just as scarifying but far more approachable.

I heard the first broadcast performance of the Seventh Symphony in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer on 16 March 1977. At the time I was left bewildered and like the Ninth it still remains a tough nut to crack. It is a three movement 45 minute piece with each movement dedicated to one of his three children: Katherine, Robert and Edward.

I listened first to Andrew Penny’s version of No. 7. In the first movement Arnold uses a macabre fractured music-box ragtime (8.20) a little reminiscent of similar moments in the first movement of the Fifth. We also catch the tattered wraiths of more popular works like the Concerto for Two Pianos Three Hands (Phyllis and Cyril). This is Arnold playing the evil clown-master. Bernstein's brilliance is also suggested more than once and it is a wonder that 'Lenny' did not take an interest. He would have made hay with the Fifth in particular. Arnold was at core more of a musical soul-mate to Bernstein than William Schuman ever was. Bernstein and Arnold also shared a Mahlerian interest. It may well be that the pioneering CBS Bernstein Mahler cycle of the 1960s gave Arnold his first chance to hear many of the symphonies. At 12.22 in the first movement of the Seventh a great sliding lichen bedecked tune is developed. This is a symphony with a troubled nocturnal character: daylight remembered, if at all, from the vantage point of dark.

The late-Mahlerian second movement drifts like someone's 'Dark Night of the Soul'. A Bachian chorale-like variant (9.40) familiar from the first movement reappears here - as it also does in the finale at 2.33 - amid tom-tom pattering. The music rises to the nightmare clang of cowbells at 12.01. A gaunt trombone call also rears up. After two meaty movements (16.23 and 13.58) the Allegro is only 7.43. Happy? Well, not directly. This is happiness viewed through cordite-smoked glass from the vantage of disillusion and dissolution. Those terminal bells ring out dully and they speak of negation and decay.

Rumon Gamba on Chandos CHAN 9967 takes the Seventh Symphony very fast at 31:52 compared with Handley’s 37:40 and Penny’s 38:24. Gamba is very well recorded but this pace strikes me as far too hurried. Broadcast tapes of versions directed by the composer, by Charles Groves and by Edward Downes are closer to the 45 minute mark. What are we to make of this? I think this tells against the well-recorded Gamba; challenging though it is to hear the work at this speed. This leaves Handley and Penny in the lists. Each takes the piece at about the same pace. The recording is sometimes a shade clearer and more tightly focused in the case of the Conifer so I would recommend the Handley but there is very little in it.

The Eighth Symphony has been a long-time favourite of mine. This has been ever since hearing the first broadcast performance in the UK. This was given by Charles Groves conducting the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra - now the BBC Phil – on 2 October 1981. It had been premiered by the Albany Symphony Orchestra under Julius Hegyi on 5 May 1979 in New York. The carefree finale takes the listener back to the days of the second and third symphonies with their echoes of the English Dances. Yet there is clearly torment in the first movement as well and while we hear diminutive fife and drum cheeriness the little drummer boy marches through a dark and sinister wood – another Kwai march with Salvation Army resonances. The Decca version has the benefits of a superb recording and of Handley taking longer to allow Arnold to register his message. Handley takes 26:42 against Gamba at 24:34 and Penny at 25:47. Gamba strikes me as just a shade too impetuous although his version portrays the turmoil and torment with the greatest impact. However for me the breathless forward bustle of the fife and drum tune at 1:37 rules him out and leaves it between Penny and Handley. Pressed to make a recommendation I would come down in favour of Handley.

The Ninth Symphony has much in common with the Seventh. This is Arnold at his toughest – especially in the sombre long curve of the Lento. It derived from a BBC commission for European Year of Music in 1985. The composer’s mental state put an end to composing during the years 1982-86 but in August and September 1986 over a three week period he completed this major symphony. This was with the support of his close companions and carer, Anthony Day to whom the symphony is dedicated.

Sir Charles Groves brought the work to premiere despite resistance within the BBC but this was given with the BBC Phil not the BBCSO. Regional orchestras – although in fact of superlative quality in the case of the BBCPO - were considered Arnold’s fitting performers. As it is, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra make an outstanding version with Handley for Decca. They flamboyantly handle the rapacious Shostakovich-style (even Kabalevsky!) demands of the Vivace third movement. Once again Handley (48:46) and Gamba (47:07) win out by the slightest shading on recording quality over Penny (46:58). Gamba sounds quite brilliant in the hands of the Chandos engineers but Andrew Keener, Tryggvi Tryggvason and Andrew Hallifax, originally for Conifer, produce a warmly glowing sound in the acoustic of the Wessex Hall in Poole. Invaluably Penny’s Naxos disc of the Ninth has an illustrated interview with a rather taciturn composer. Drawing comment from the ailing composer was like drawing teeth but it is still wonderful to have this documentary element. That morendo end to the long lento has a suitably valedictory finality and a gravity that recalls the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique.

There are no other Arnold symphonies apart from the unrecorded Toy Symphony (1957) but if you want to rope in the far from carefree Sinfoniettas (1954, 1958, 1964) you can do so by tracking down EMI Classics CDZ 5 74780- 2 issued in 2001.

Each of the three Decca Arnold Edition boxes is uniform in appearance and the covers are graced by June Mendoza’s portrait of the composer – soulful yet with an impish glint in the eyes.

For all that this Decca Universal set is a reissue project, the music has an incontestably matchless sweep. This box is indispensable to anyone with an interest in the twentieth century symphony. These works merit comparison with those of Sibelius, Shostakovich and Pettersson. Handley for all his occasional tendency to press forward hard is an inspired and often majestic guide to ten of these eleven symphonies. These are works awesome in their command of emotion from delight to terror.

Rob Barnett

Volume 1 The symphonies Volume 2 The Concertos Volume 3 Orchestral Music etc.

See also MALCOLM ARNOLD – THE SYMPHONIES: A comparative review By Paul Conway

THE MALCOLM ARNOLD EDITION – Detailed track listing

Symphony for Strings, Op.13 20:17

1. Allegro ma non troppo 06:49
2. Andantino quasi allegretto 07:21
3. Allegro feroce 06:07
BBC Concert Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1998 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Walton
Recording Engineer: Richard Millard
Recorded in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 13-15 October 1997
Symphony No.1, Op.22 27:16

1. Allegro 09:51
2. Andantino 09:30
3. Vivace con fuoco 07:55
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1996 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Oliver Rivers
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Assistant Engineer: Andrew Hallifax
Recorded 14-15 September 1995 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Symphony No.2, Op.40 29:33

1. Allegretto 06:17
2. Vivace 04:14
3. Lento 12:52
4. Allegro con brio 06:10
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1994 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Assistant Engineer: Andrew Hallifax
Recorded on 29 and 31 May 1994 at All Saints’ Church, Petersham, Surrey

Symphony No.3, Op.63 31:08

1. Allegro 11:10
2. Lento 13:07
3. Allegro con brio 06:51
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1996 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Recorded in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 17-18 June 1996
Symphony No.4, Op.71 37:24

1. Allegro 12:38
2. Vivace ma non troppo 04:57
3. Andantino 11:45
4. Con fuoco 08:04
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1996 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Recorded in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 17-18 June 1996
Symphony No.5, Op.74 30:43

1. Tempestuoso 08:44
2. Andante con moto 11:11
3. Con fuoco 04:42
4. Risoluto 06:06
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1996 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Assistant Engineer: Andrew Hallifax
Recorded 14-15 September 1995 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Symphony No.6, Op.95 26:41

1. Energico 08:59
2. Lento – Allegretto – Lento 10:54
3. Con fuoco 06:48
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1993 Conifer Records Ltd.
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Assistant Engineer: Mike Cox
Recorded on 19-20 April 1993 at Henry Wood Hall, London
Symphony No.7, Op.113 37:40

1. Allegro energico 15:54
2. Andante con moto – Sempre crescendo e accelerando -
Molto vivace – Lento+ 13:54
3. Allegro – Allegretto – Allegro – Allegretto – Vivace 07:52
+Derek James, trombone
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1991 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Assistant Engineer: Anton Tryggvason
Recorded on 7-9 July 1990 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Symphony No.8, Op.121 26:27

1. Allegro 11:45
2. Andantino 08:55
3. Vivace 05:47
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P1991 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Assistant Engineer: Anton Tryggvason
Recorded on 7-9 July 1990 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Symphony for Brass Instruments 22:49

1. Allegro moderato 07:17
2. Allegro grazioso 04:23
3. Andante con moto 05:22
4. Allegro con brio 05:47
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
P 1979 Decca Music Group
Recording Producer: Chris Hazell
Recording Engineer: John Dunkerley
Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, January 1979
Symphony No.9, Op.128 48:50

1. Vivace 08:48
2. Allegretto 10:01
3. Giubiloso 06:13
4. Lento 23:48
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Vernon Handley
P 1996 Conifer Records Limited
Recording Producer: Andrew Keener
Recording Engineer: Tryggvi Tryggvason
Assistant Engineer: Andrew Hallifax
Recorded in the Wessex Hall, Poole, Dorset, 17-18 June 1996


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