Cover Painting: The Mustard Field by William Alwyn
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
Three Concerti Grossi
The City of London Symphonia
conducted by Richard Hickox
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
Notes © by Mary Alwyn
During the second world war he continued to teach both flute and composition at the Royal Academy and to write film scores for the Ministry of Information and the Army Film Unit - universally famous films such as Desert Victory, The Way Ahead and The True Glory as well as many documentaries, officially "secret" and propaganda films. These so raised the wrath of the Nazis that he had the dubious distinction of being included on Hitler's "black-list"!
But these were only his day-time activities. At night he served as an Air Raid Warden in North London, and it was during these hazardous sleepless nights on patrol that he composed the Oboe Concerto. In this he found relief from war-scarred London by expressing his feelings of nostalgia for the peace and beauty of the English countryside. It was played at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert in 1949 by Evelyn Rothwell - the wife of Sir John Barbirolli, who was later to introduce Alwyn's symphonies to the British public. The concerto is in two movements, played without a break: the main material of the first being brought back to the end of the second.
| CD REVIEW - October 1992
Concerto for Oboe, String
Orchestra and Harp;
Despite passing nods to Walton and Arnold in his more extrovert moments and a lyric nostalgia reminiscent of Finzi in the more subdued music, William Alwyn, who only died in 1985, is another fine English composer who found expressive renewal and development of the tonal idiom as natural as drawing breath. He accomplishes it in music that is memorably individual and stylistically distinctive. To hear what I mean, try the opening of the ravishing Oboe Concerto - the suspended rapture of oscillating string chords and mystic tracery supplied by the seductive oboe of Nicholas Daniel conjure a rare vision that makes an even more striking return at the close of the work. Such beautiful craftsmanship is immediately cherishable and I haven't been able to stop listening to the piece, so compulsive is its hypnotic spell.
The Concerti Grossi, for standard chamber orchestra (No. 1), strings (No.2) and woodwind, brass and strings (No.3), date from 1943, 1948 and 1964 respectively and are no less engaging. They deploy graceful bows to the Baroque age, but also exhibit tougher, darker forces at work that frequently rise to lyrically charged or vehement climaxes. Even if Hickox cannot quite match the heartfelt intimacy of the composer's own recording of the central adagioof the Second Concerto (Lyrita), there's no doubt that this is a minor masterpiece of its type.
Alwyn conceived his first four Symphonies as an epic cycle of works, each inter-related yet still independent. The Fourth, in three movements is on the grandest scale with an opening maestoso that proceeds to release a tremendous surge of energy which temporarily subsides only to be marshaled into an aggressive scherzo of descending scales that curiously marries the pealing bells from Rachmaninov's second symphony with the malice of Walton's First.
The last movement begins with some of the most impressive and moving music that the composer wrote, a tragic threnody that is finally transformed into triumph. Hickox and the LS0 project the underlying turbulence with powerful thrust and dedication in a performance of imposing stature and expressive range.
Neither the Elizabethan Dances (rumbustuous cavortings that are neither as outrageous nor good-natured as Malcolm Arnold's national dances) nor the Festival March (an uneasy mixture of Pomp and Circumstance and Crown Imperial inhabit the same exalted level as the other works. The melodic interest is not especially striking and stock gestures loom rather too largely, but don't let this deter you from investigating a composer who in his major statements speaks with a directness and confidence that proves immensely rewarding and instantly engaging.
The sound is ripe and full, very much in the well-established traditions of the house.
|HI-FI News - August 1992|
A new William Alwyn Hickox series for Chandos: premiere recordings of the Oboe Concerto (in two linked movements Andante/Vivace), written at the end of the war, later premiered by Evelyn Rothwell, and Concerti Grossi 1(1943: chamber orchestra) and 3 (1964: winds, brass, strings), both BBC commissions.
Principally remembered for his film scores - Concerto Grossi 2 was dedicated to his colleague Muir Mathieson, a familiar film credit - Alwyn was also a virtuoso flautist and amateur painter: his canvases decorate the two booklet covers. (Notes by Mary Alwyn; some reproduced music sketches show the composer's neat hand.) Barbirolli was keenly interested in Alwyn's music, and he first conducted Symphony 4 in 1954. Alwyn planned this as culmination to a cycle of symphonies, influenced by the Lisztian thematic transformation idea, and developing a 12-note division of the scale. Couplings here were for the Festival of Britain, a ceremonial march inevitably 'Pomp & Circumstantial', unashamedly tuneful, and for the 1957 BBC Light Music Festival - Elizabethan Dances - purportedly reflecting the idiom of the time of both Queens.
The LSO programme (both were
made in the full St. Jude's NW11
acoustic), spans a range of intentions;
however, I cannot help thinking that
the Festival March will strike some as
unintentionally funny - nowadays
such a score would signal satirical
comment. In the set of Dances only
the Moderato ['neo-Elizabethan with
a hint of the Blues'] has any strong
individuality- one should not seek
writing of the quality of, say, Walton's for Henry V., indeed, I
confess myself mis-cast in the role of
reviewer here. For, if 4m 13s into the
symphony one is side-tracked by a
similarity in the brass call to Bernstein's 'Maria, Maria', or in
Grosso 3 one wonders 'why not just
listen to Hindemith?', clearly some-
thing is wrong. Yes, I enjoyed the
buoyant finale to the Oboe Concerto,
and Concerto Grosso 2 is a fine piece,
but for the rest I thought Alwyn
stubbornly resistible; I found no real
compulsion to pursue his material.
But it must be said the LSO play
splendidly, and Hickox sounds absolutely committed to all this music.
|CLASSIC CD September 1992|
Concerto for oboe. string orchestra and harp (1944-5).
Symphony No. 4 (1959):
Autumn Legend for cor anglais and string orchestra
You have to admire Chandos's tenacity. For years not a single piece of Alwyn's orchestral music was recorded on CD, and yet now here comes another of these epic cycles., Which is good, up to a point. Like Sir Arnold Bax, who was given the Chandos treatment before him,William Alwyn (1905-1985) wrote a handful of truly inspired pieces as well as a great deal of other music, probably too much, in fact - including scores for more than 60 films. In common with Bax, you often feel that the sheer technical facility for cranking out notes rather got the better of him. Ideas for the Third Concerto grosso, for example, which is in fact one of the more effective works, were immediately sketched by Alwyn on the back of the envelope which carried the commissioning letter from the BBC. This cycle will help in the re-evaluation of music which has been unfashionable for years. as long as it doesn't submerge the really worthwhile pieces in its bid for comprehensiveness.
The first CD, with the Oboe Concerto and the three Concerti grossi, contains three premiere recordings, and in this case it is fairly clear why companies have not queued up to record them before. All of the music is light: that of the wartime Oboe Concerto pastoral and inoffensive, recalling pieces in similar vein by Vaughan Williams, Warlock, and Delius. Pages of the regulation compound-time tum-ti-tum abound. Of the Concerti grossi, the most memorable are the delicately scored second one, for strings, which has a pronounced neo-classical flavour, and the third, which has a beautiful and dramatic final Andante.
Another CD features the Lyra angelica - the harp and-string concerto which Alwyn counted as the most beautiful of all his works. This mature and elegant piece is in four movements and gets a winning performance from the soloist Rachel Masters. Of the other three items, two are recorded for the first time: the Pastoral Fantasia (say no more) and the much darker Tragic Interlude of 1936, which Alwyn prefaced with three lines from Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero. The remaining piece, Autumn Legend, is a shadowy and effective study for cor anglais and strings, neatly performed.
Which brings us to the long-neglected Fourth, Symphony . This is the final one of a group of symphonies which Alwyn began with his First in 1949, although he did in fact complete a Fifth in 1973. It is, I think, an absolute masterpiece, one which stands at the centre of Alwyn's output as does the First Symphony in William Walton's - and indeed the two are not dissimilar in terms of their musical language. The LSO plays superbly well for Hickox and it is very heartening to hear this music performed for all it is worth. If anything, Hickox's reading has more breadth and weight than the composer's own with the London Philharmonic, recently reissued on a Lyrita CD. The recorded sound of this and the other two discs is up to Chandos's usual high standards, and in the Fourth Symphony the sound quality is some distance in front of Lyrita's version of 1975 - although that was perfectly acceptable.
The Six Elizabethan Dances which follow are performed with great virtuosity and panache, but the other real gem is the Festival March, which Alwyn wrote for the opening of the Royal Festival Hall at the 1951 Festival of Britain. Greatly reminiscent of Elgar and Walton In their coronation regalia, it is one of those pieces which demands to be played very loudly and very often.