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Cover Painting: The Gold Bar of Heaven by William Alwyn
Rachel Masters (harp)
Nicholas Daniel (cor anglais)
Stephen Tees (viola)
The City of London Symphonia
conducted by Richard Hickox
Rachel Masters (harp)
Notes © by Mary Alwyn
William Alwyn wrote:
For the factory workers turning out the munitions the BBC provided music while you work; the National Gallery in London, denuded of its Art treasures, was used for lunch-time concerts to a packed audience, and for the people at home the Light programme of the BBC asked for small ensembles which could play original arrangements of classical music for half-hour programmes. William Pleeth (cello), Watson Forbes (viola) and William Alwyn (flute) were among the many distinguished musicians who joined together for this.. All the players took a turn in arranging the music and Alwyn also wrote original compositions for the players, including several works especially for the viola - then the Cinderella of the stringed instruments. The Pastoral Fantasia for Viola and String orchestra was one of these. A piano arrangement was given a first performance by Watson Forbes with Clifford Curzon in 1940. The following year the orchestral version was broadcast by the BBC from Bedford, the wartime home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Lost for nearly fifty years, the Pastoral fantasia was recently rediscovered and is a welcome addition to the repertoire.
As Alwyn said, these experiences were to serve him well. It is a great advantage if a composer can shine in the roles of conductor and creator, for he can register an authentic interpretation of his music for all time on gramophone record. In 1936 a film studio emergency led him into an entirely new type of composition - music for films. He became a pioneer in this field, to which he would contribute his creative imagination for many years.
But all this was overshadowed by events in Europe - Hitler had sent troops to the Rhineland and allied himself to Mussolini, and with the threat of a second world war imminent, William Alwyn, pondering on the futility of war with its destruction of towns and cities and slaughter of young men and civilians, wrote Tragic Interlude, which he headed with these lines from Richard Addington's Death of a Hero:
|Gramophone - October 1992|
I cannot think of a better way to start exploring Alwyn's music than with this quartet of highly atmospheric and very communicative works. William Alwyn valued his Lyra Angelica concerto for harp above all his other music, and it is indeed very beautiful. It was Premiered at the first night of the 1954 Proms and. not surprisingly, made an immediate impression. The work is inspired by stanzas written in the seventeenth century by the English metaphysical poet, Giles Fletcher, and Alwyn prefaces each of the rnovements with a line from his poem, "Christ's Victorie and Triumph". The music opens mistily and then a wondrous tune appears, like a carol, and it almost fits the words of the first quotation, "I looke for angels' songs, and hear Him crie". This glorious theme dominates the work through the first three movements, which are essentially reflective and then blossoms even more gloriously in the jubilant finale: How can such joy as this want words to speake?". Alwyn is a master of texture as well as form and the textures here, delicately embroidered by the solo harp, are harmonically rich, and the effect on the listener is very moving. The concerto is played with a real feeling for the music's rapture, and the expansive recorded sound, with rich string tirnbres and a perfect balance with the solo harp is very fine indeed.
The score of the Pastoral fantasia for viola and strings had been lost for half a century and was only recently rediscovered. It was written in 1939 and looks back nostalgically to a more peaceful England The music opens like Delius, but the entry of the viola brings an immediate affinity with Vaughan Williams as the solo viola begins in rhapsodic soliloquy. There is a momentary but very tangible hint of Sibelius (1'57') and then the viola line floats free and one is reminded of The lark ascending, only Alwyn's lark is more troubled and does not soar quite so high. The Tragic Interlude dates from 1936 when the composer's foreboding of the imminence of war brought an eloquent protest at the waste of life. The piece opens passionately and gathers momentum, but after its climax, dissolves into a moving elegiac threnody. The Autumn Legend is much later (1954). It has a particularly lovely opening, with shafts of sunlight on the strings piercing the clouds, and the music's disconsolate manner has an underlying romantic feeling, rather than conveying pessimism. Yet the dark-hued coe anglais line has a pervading melancholy and has much in common with Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela, although the writing is more animated. It is a fine if ambivalent piece, and Nicholas Daniel. the soloist, captures its mood persuasively, while Richard Hickox shows himself in complete affinity with Alwyn's world, which may be eclectic in influences but has strong individuality too. The Chandos recording is outstandingly fine.
THE PENGUIN COMPLETE GUIDE
Autumn Legend (1954) is a highly atmospheric tone poem, very Sibelian in influence. It is beautifully played. The Pastoral Fantasia also contains a curious Sibelius quotation - perhaps unconscious - near the beginning. Yet the piece has its own developing individuality. Again a fine performance, with Stephen Tees highly sympathetic to the music's fluid poetic line. The Tragic interlude is a powerful lament for the dead of wars past, written on the eve of the Second World war. But the highlight of the disc is the Lyra angelica, a radiantly beautiful, extended piece (just over half an hour in length), inspired by the metaphysical poet, Giles Fletcher's Christ's victorie and triumph
|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.
|CD REVIEW - Nov 1992|
This latest instalment in Richard Hickox's exploration of the music of William Alwyn more than maintains the high standard set by the first two releases. Hickox obviously has an entirely intuitive understanding of what makes the music tick; this is immediately apparent at the ravishing opening of Lyra angelica, a concerto for harp and strings written in 1954. The phrasing is imperceptibly floated at a true pianissimo and proceeds to expand naturally with the short pauses speaking almost as much as the music itself. The harp entries seduce the ears with immaculate timing and expectation before we are launched into a soaring ecstatic melody that most composers would surely lay down their lives for - no wonder that Alwyn considered this to be his most beautiful work.
The titles of all the works here are directly revealing about musical style and content. Autumn Legend is a Rossetti-inspired, hauntingly atmospheric miniature poem for cor-anglais and strings that amply reflects the composer's ability to produce those sudden moments of suspended rapture (try the last three miniatures). The Pastoral Fantasia for viola and strings casts more than an upward glance to VW's lark, but is content to paint a nostalgic romance-filled landscape rather than strive for quite the same exalted heights. The Tragic Interlude for two horns, timpani and strings from 1936 is the earliest work and dwells with considerable foreboding on the prospect of war.
Although it is easy to view such music as being totally at odds with its more progressive contemporaries, its sincerity and craftsmanship speak volumes. Clearly this is music written to be immediately understood and enjoyed. The composer is being wholly true to himself, and, for all its ostensibly traditional comforts, it frequently has something darker gnawing at its heart that exerts an insidious fascination.
Rachel Masters (harp), Nicholas Daniel (cor anglais) and Stephen Tees (viola) all get beneath the skin of their respective works with heartwarming artistry, and I was totally captivated for the whole duration, especially when supported by such magical sound quality.