ARNOLD Symphony No 7. Philharmonic Concerto
This useful anthology brings together three of Malcolm Arnold’s most powerfully distinctive and deeply personal works. All date from the first half of the 1970s – a period of great turmoil for the then Dublin-based composer.
Fearlessly uncompromising in expression, the Seventh Symphony is cast in three movements, each carrying a dedication to one of Arnold’s children, its numbingly bleak centrepiece ostensibly portraying the world of his autistic son, Edward. (It’s also hard not to hear in this harrowing music something of the desperation and anguish of the hapless parent.) Martin Yates tears into the opening Allegro energico with a vengeance and his reading overall shaves around six minutes off those by Vernon Handley (Conifer, 3/91 – nla) and Andrew Penny (Naxos, 9/01). Unfortunately, the combination of a driven approach and the RSNO Centre’s reverberant, slightly hollow acoustic means that tuttis take on an unhelpfully hectic, rowdy quality that quickly tires the ear. Nor do I quite register the relentless logic, sinewy authority and inexorable concentration that help to make Handley’s enviably unforced, pioneering account in particular such a riveting experience.
It’s preceded here by the 22-minute Fantasy on a Theme of John Field for piano and orchestra – another astonishing creation, enjoyably bonkers in its disparate stylistic borrowings and wild mood-swings, yet also wholly characteristic in its urgently communicative manner. Dedicatee John Lill made a marvellously eloquent recording of it with Handley and the RPO (Conifer, 2/94 – nla), but Peter Donohoe, too, plays with coruscating aplomb, his partnership with Yates and the RSNO evincing a wealth of character, valiant emotional scope and sense of danger that compel from start to finish. (Donohoe also gives us a shapely performance of Field’s original solo Nocturne No 7 in C major – a nice idea.) Last, but not least, comes the three-movement Philharmonic Concerto, a compact and consummately crafted crowd-pleaser written for the LPO’s 1976 tour of the USA. I can report that Yates and company lend it understanding and affectionate advocacy.
So, despite some personal misgivings about both the performance of the symphony and Dutton’s somewhat raw sound, there’s still plenty on this two-channel hybrid SACD to reward Arnold acolytes.