I agree with you that in many ways the 7th is Arnold's darkest and most intractable symphony. Therein lies a major paradox in that the music is meant to be portraits of his children. Timings - particularly as relating to Arnold's own later recordings are a flawed frame of reference. It seems to me that all of his later studio performances are characterised by a slowing down that borders on the distorting. Comparing well-known / light pieces such as the Cornish Dances in Arnold's own interpretations shows this well. Another is the 1st recording of Beckus (where Arnold famously plays trumpet under Van Beinum) at 7.38 at his Reference recording at a lumbering 10.49 - a huge difference for a comedy overture. Sadly, I do not regard the changes in approach as a conscious creative/artistic decision but a symptom of the disease that blighted his later years. But curiously, I think some of his greatest music was created out of that same fight with his inner demons; the 2nd String Quartet, the 9th Symphony etc.
As it happens, I met Sir Malcolm once very late in his life when he was requiring 24 hour care from Anthony - the dedicatee of the 9th Symphony. Anthony told me that they played all the symphonies and other recordings on a daily basis and at that time the Penny cycle was the distinct preference. Not just because of that I must admit I think it is my favourite too. To my ear they achieve the best balance between all the various moods that inhabit the works. I find Hickox (Arnold attended those sessions too) rather too weighty and Handley often a bit scrappy (No.6 especially so - but this is a pig of a piece to play!).
I find it very hard to believe that Hickox refused to conduct the final 3 Symphonies. The 9th I think is one of Arnold's masterpieces with the 8th quirky and elusive. It is a quite 'brave' choice to start - if this is the 1st of a series - with Symphony No.7. I happened to have worked with Martin Yates and know how conscientious he is - my guess (only a guess!) is that the reason he chose this repertoire was precisely because he felt a different approach was legitimate. Arnold tends to put very specific metronome markings in his scores. The 7th is a symphony I do not have the score for so cannot be certain this is the case there but balance of probability would suggest so. My theory would be Yates follows those markings more closely than other interpreters?
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