Listening to the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies of Malcolm Arnold, without reference to earlier and happier works, you may well wonder how it was he ever came to be considered a popular composer. The clown's smile for one thing - smile with turned-down corners: what really lies behind it? The humour of the Fifth Symphony, found mostly in its traditional place, the scherzo, is miles away from the belly-laughs of the Grand, Grand Overture's vacuum cleaners, while the 'popular' elements of the Sixth, the jazz figurations inspired by saxophonist Charlie Parker and well captured by Handley and the RPO, only add to the overwhelming unease that marks both works for its own. With hindsight, this tension is seen to meet its nemesis in the Seventh and Eighth, yet to be released on Naxos, though Andrew Penny's outstanding first recording of the enigmatic Ninth already stands as a goal for the series. Crazy mood swings punctuate earlier scores, of course: who could forget the savage march intruding on the Fourth's finale? But the locus classicus is the luxurious tune of the Fifth's Andante con moto, famously distorted at the end of the finale. For performers the challenge is not just to play the notes, but to imbue them with both sincerity and falseness, and Penny does this better than his rivals, Hickox and Handley; even better, perhaps, than the composer himself with the CBSO in 1973, whose reading nonetheless still carries the field for the sheer exaggeration of its musical camp.
© BBC Music Magazine 2001