ARNOLD Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 – Penny
These new recordings of two of Malcolm Arnold’s finest symphonies can be recommended on all counts. Andrew Penny is clearly right inside every bar of the music and the playing of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland suggests thorough rehearsal, but not so much preparation that the musicians have become stale. They play with impressive ensemble and feeling, and above all great freshness and spontaneity.
Comparisons in this case are instructive. Penny’s timings are generally closer to Handley than to Hickox; in some ways his approach is emotionally tautest of all. Of course Hickox has a glorious Chandos recording, and the LSO strings (helped by the glowing resonance) have a body of tone the Dublin orchestra do not quite match. But that is not to say that the Naxos recording is unexpansive; indeed its concert-hall ambience has been beautifully caught by Chris Craker who both produced and engineered this disc. The beginning of the Third Symphony undoubtedly sounds sparer in Dublin than it does in London, but that seems to sharpen its emotional impact.
One of the finest players in Dublin is the principal oboe and his solos often bring a specially plangent quality, particularly in the slow movement of No. 3 (at 4'55'') where there is a real sense of desolation. The finale then lightens the mood with its kaleidoscope of wind and brass and a wispy string melody that soon becomes more fulsome. Penny’s momentum and characterization here are superb, as is the orchestral response. Similarly the winningly scored opening of the Fourth Symphony flashes with colour: then comes that marvellous tune (2'44'') played with captivating delicacy by the violins. The exquisitely fragile scherzo is etched with gossamer lightness and the slow movement is shaped by Penny with fine lyrical feeling and the most subtle use of light and shade. Its romanticism is heart-warming, yet balanced by Arnold’s underlying unease. The boisterous fugal finale brings some of the best playing of all, and just after the flute and piccolo have wittily recalled Britten’s
In short these Naxos performances of two immensely enjoyable British symphonies are in every way worthy of our greatest living British composer. His music, I believe, will increasingly become part of our standard repertoire.'