Cover Painting: Fantastic Landscape by William Alwyn
The London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Richard Hickox
Notes © by Mary Alwyn
Mary Alwyn writes:
In 1948 William Alwyn started work on a long-cherished scheme that he hoped might constitute a major contribution to the development of the symphony. He planned a cycle of four symphonies, much as Wagner had planned a cycle of operas to form The Ring: each symphony was to be complete in itself but was to form an integral part of the whole cycle.. Alwyn has been called a modern romantic. His romanticism does not, however, result in rhapsodic shapelessness. On the contrary, his design of the symphonies shows a highly personal approach and a completely new outlook. No longer is there the classical (Brahmsian) approach with sonata form, 1st and 2nd subjects, developments and recapitulation etc., but Alwyn has evolved a pattern of his own - and his pattern changes in each of his symphonies.
To be asked to write a march for the occasion was indeed a problem. Of course one's mind turns immediately to Elgar's great Pomp and Circumstance marches. The first ideas were sketched in 4:4 time but it was only when Alwyn tried a march in compound 12:8 time that the music began to flow.
The March begins with an emphatic introductory statement of the main idea. After a few bars this abruptly sinks to a distant rumble as of an approaching procession. One hears the approach and passing of the gaily coloured sections of a Festival parade, each with its heralding fanfare and its glittering band. The climax comes when the brass stridently state a new and vigorous idea against the rhythmic counterpoint of the percussion. The listener glimpses the march past of a military band. The scene then changes, the music dies away into the broad tune of the Trio section sung by unison violins and cellos. This is repeated grandioso by the full orchestra. after a brief "link" a return to the "procession" section builds to a final fortissimo version of the Trio tune.
Notes © by Mary Alwyn
Gramophone - July 1992
SymphoniesNo. 1 in D, No. 4.
Symphony No. 4.
London Symphony Orchestra
Chandos CHAN8902 (65 minutes: DDD).
For record collectors fed up with musical 'barbed wire', George Lloyd's symphonies are doing nicely (the composer's nephew told me recently and jubilantly that all Lloyd's records have more than covered their recording costs), so the time is ripe for the entry of the William Alwyn symphonies into the CD catalogue. They were recorded by Lyrita in the LP era, but it is also good to see the new Chandos digital recording of No. 4, an extraordinarily fine work. I have listened to it a great deal recently, making close comparisons between the composer's own recording and the new Hickox version. It would be normal received wisdom for me to suggest that the composer's performance has greater penetration and intensity - first recordings are usually special - but my impression is that this is not so.
The two accounts are remarkablv alike, even though in the first movement the composer's timing. is a minute and a half shorter than Hickox's, and in the finale he saves a minute and a quarter: Hickox's extra spaciousness does not mean that either the tension or the momentum flags. Indeed, when one compares his phrasing of the long and beautiful string cantilena which opens the Adagio e molto calmato of the Passacaglia finale, its ebb and flow and dynamic gradations suggest either that Hickox has listened to the composer' s LP or has a remarkable, instinctive feeling for the music (probably both).
At the opening of the first movement a horn melisma soon appears, which the LSO principal plays with a touch more intensity at its climax. and later (8'57') Hickox accents the string theme more forcefully than the composer; elsewhere the LPO brass snarls and bites more readily under Alwyn. This is not to say that the big, almost Stravinskian, climax which comes about six minutes or so into the work (Chandos timing) is not stridently powerful in the hands of Hickox and the LSO. The scherzo too may have a bit more bite with Alwyn (as do the curiously plangent wood-wind squawks at 7'22' of the opening-movement of the Lyrita disc), but this is at least partly caused by the more leonine Lyrita sound. The centrepiece of the scherzo brings a glorious blossoming from the violins which ii equally thrilling in both performances, while at the very end of the symphony the final brass peroration has great forceful thrust from the composer. However, with the LSO and Hickox the slightly richer, more spacious Chandos recording adds to the weight of sonority. In short, these are both highly compelling performances of a remarkably diverse and well-argued symphony, bursting with lyrical ideas and melodic in the way traditional music is communicative, without being old-fashioned. So now let us consider couplings.
Those on Chandos are relatively slight. The Elizabethan Dances aren't very early Elizabethan, but the languid "Waltz" (No. 21) is rather charming and the "Poco Allegretto" (No. 5) is even more so; the vigorous numbers are more conventional. The Festival March, written for the 1951 Festival of Britain, is an agreeable occasional piece, although its big tune isn't as memorable of those of Walton or Elgar. Yet if you want a modern digital recording of the Fourth Symphony, these are acceptable makeweights. On the other hand, Lyrita offer the Symphony No. 1. It is a work teeming with ideas, and quite often reminds one of Alwyn's film music (which is not meant to be a pejorative remark). With its ample scoring the composer does go over the top a bit at times, and this is not nearly so cogently argued a piece as the Fourth, although it has a rather appealing Adagio. It is splendidly played and the Lyrita recordings (from the 1970s) have been remastered most skilfully: the sound has body, weight, brilliance, and fine presence and clarity too.
Fanfare September 1992
ALWYN: Symphony No. 4.
ALWYN: Concerto for Oboe, String Orchestra, and Harp,
William Alwyn got star treatment, and deservedly so. from Lyrita Record, which saved him from complete obscurity by recording his complete symphonies and some orchestral works along with his opera Miss Julie. The reasons for Alwyn's neglect are not too hard to fathom. He was never the darling of the musical establishment, as was Britten. He had neither Tippet's sensationalistic English version of Radical Chic, nor Walton's literary connections. And he had no interest in either Schoenbergian serialism or the English pastoral tradition. A stronger recipe for obscurity can scarcely be imagined. Even worse, he made his living writing film scores, was a painter as well as a poet and displayed none of the awkwardness that gives composers like Rubbra and Brian a cult following.
What Alwyn had in abundance was talent. The Concerti Grossi. for example, are tuneful, immaculately crafted, witty, and inventive. Similar light works by Malcolm Arnold come to mind. although Alwyn's sensibility is more refined, less rambunctious (though by no means listless or dull). Similarly, the oboe concerto must be one of the more successful contemporary specimens of this comparatively rare genre.
Alwyn completed five symphonies. The Fourth is a magnificent work,
rather like Bliss's
Colour symphony, but with a keener sense of structure and greater thematic
distinction. It reveals
Alwyn's mastery of the conventional Romantic orchestra (no percussion save
timpani), and seems
to flow effortlessly toward its grand conclusion. And no, it doesn't sound
like movie music. The
shorter orchestral works, as might be expected from a master craftsman, are
the dances (which take inspiration from the eras of both Elizabeths). Chandos
is off to another
splendid series, it seems. Sonics are glorious, and Hickox becomes more impressive
with each new
release, securing superb playing and discipline from his various forces. First-rate.
in all respects.
| 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.
THE PENGUIN C0MPLETE GUIDE
Richard Hickox's conception of the Fourth is marginally more spacious than the composer's own - as the timings of the outer movements demonstrate. Yet he has a masterly grip on the score. The Chandos digital recording, made in St. Jude's, in London NW 11, is superbly rich and spacious. The Elizabethan suite doesn't bridge the opposing styles of the times of the queens, Elizabeth I and II, too convincingly, but there is a graceful Waltz, an engaging mock-morris dance and a pleasing pavane. The Festival march is agreeable enough, but its grand tune lacks the memorability of those by Elgar and Walton.
| HI-FI News - August 1992 |
A new William Alwyn Hickox series for Chandos: premiere recordings of the Oboe Concerto (in two linked movementsAndante/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 Alwvn; 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
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.