To those familiar with his English (etc) Dances, film music and even his earlier symphonies, the 7th Symphony (particularly) will come as a surprise: an unsettling, stridently-scored, relentless and deeply pessimistic work, that puzzles and occasionally irritates when first encountered but which begins to reveal itself on repeated hearings. The 8th seems less hard-driven, but the pessimism is still there, despite the folksy tune of its first movement and the attempt to recapture the spirit of Arnold's early symphonies in the finale.
Some knowledge of the composer's final years (which can be gained from Tony Palmer's documentary film Towards the Unknown Region) will help the listener to get to grips with these two works. It is now evident that the earlier picture of Malcolm Arnold the ebullient entertainer who captured the public imagination in the 1950s and 1960s was only half the story. These two works, plus the final (9th)symphony reveal the other Arnold, only hinted at in such places as the Lento of the 2nd Symphony and the second Cornish Dance.
The Naxos recording highlights the splendid brass and woodwind of the Irish orchestra, the starring figures in Arnold's score (eg the coldness of the flutes at the start of the second movement of the 7th, and the prominence of Arnold's own instrument, the trumpet) together with the percussion (the incessant drum rythyms of the 7th's first movement): the strings are less prominent in two works that exhibit the composer's characteristically light, transparent scoring.
In short, an excellent recording of two challenging works.