Cover Painting: Spring Waters by William Alwyn
William Alwyn began work on his First symphony in 1948, this being the first of a cycle of four symphonies he had planned, much as Richard Wagner had written a cycle of operas to form the 'RING'. The first performance of Symphony No. 1 was in 1950 at the Cheltenham Festival, and the conductor, Sir John Barbirolli, immediately commissioned a second symphony to be premiered with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. At the same time a letter came from Rhodesia inviting Alwyn to write a symphonic poem to commemorate the Rhodes Centenary. Whilst sorting my husband's papers I found the long-lost letter - written around the edges and on the back of the envelope were musical 'ideas'. There was also one sheet of MS paper headed Rhodes Symphony - but nothing more. The Rhodes project was abandoned, but these first immediate ideas were not forgotten and proved to be the starting point of Symphony no. 2.
In this symphony all vestige of classical symphonic form is abandoned. It is conceived in one continuous movement only broken by a momentary pause. Gone are the traditional four movements, and in their place are two spans of music, each proceeding from a fast to a slow tempo.
Part I. Con moto - Molto moderato - Quasi molto calmato
Part II. Allegro molto - Moderato largamente - Molto tranquillo
The whole work concentrates on the development of a single main motif announced by the bassoon, answered by the violins and accompanied by ominous triplets on the timpani, cellos and basses. This rhythm is of considerable importance throughout the work. It accompanies the long tunes, builds to the big climaxes and is often reinforced with the side drum and tenor drum - their brittle sound giving additional excitement.
Part I builds to such a climax, then stops with two, separated bars marked 'Silence' in the score. After a third silent bar the solo cello has a long tune, which is taken up by the violins and eventually vanishes as it ascends into a higher register. Chords on the brass, interrupted by the bassoon, lead into the final pianissimo coda.
Part II begins as a scherzo, energetic and impetuous, its 3:4 time frequently changed by syncopation into 2:4. The triplet rhythms on the horns marcato becomes an argument between strings and woodwind. This gradually quietens to a long solo on the trumpet, with the strings still chattering away in triplets. Dropping arpeggios on horns eventually build to a re-statement of the main motif with its accompaniment of ominous triplets.
The work ends with a tranquil epilogue in which the theme is played by each section in turn. This settles on an F minor chord which grows to a triumphant F major - fading to one last triplet on the timpani, pianissimo.
Alwyn always called this work his 'little symphony', and it was his favourite of the five. For his 75th Birthday Concert, at which he conducted the BBC Scottish Orchestra, this was the symphony he chose, together with his overture Derby Day, the Oboe Concerto and the Concerto Grosso No. 3.
But the concert of 24th September did not take place. The bombing of London became so intense that the Government closed all theatres, cinemas and concert halls. All trace of the score and its parts was lost until last year I learned that the LSO still had the material in its archive. On reading through the score I was struck by Sir Henry's meticulous markings, for, owing to the Blitz, Alwyn was too busy with his Air Raid Warden and fire-fighting duties to rehearse the work himself. It was a cloud of blue-pencilled slurs, dynamics, breath and bow marks which obscured the original notation from view.. Almost every page is filled with questions for the composer to answer regarding these details, Sir Henry left nothing to chance.
This overture is a lively work in the style of a dance. Alwyn uses the 'pipe and tabor' idea from Elizabethan times as the basis of the music - where it is frequently syncopated and with pizzicato accompaniment. A masque was a semi-dramatic performance, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in England, which combined verse, music, mime and spectacle.
Though Alwyn still makes use of his personal conception of 12-note technique, modified by his firm belief in tonality, he uses it with the greatest freedom. Out of the brilliant scoring for full orchestra a tune on the strings, unashamedly in C major, competes triumphantly with the galloping rattle of wind, brass and percussion until it takes possession, fortissimo, of the whole orchestra.
Notes © Mary Alwyn
|Gramophone - February 1993|
I wrote about the composer's own fine Lyrita recordings of the Second Symphony as recently as last October. That disc offers a very generous coupling indeed, namely the Third and Fifth symphonies, and since Alwyn is an excellent exponent of his own music it remains highly recommendable. However if you are thinking of collecting all Alwyn's orchestral music, then this new Chandos CD is in every way competitive.
Hickox's performance of the symphony is very close to that of the composer. His timing for each of the two movements are less than a minute longer, and his reading has every bit as much power and grip. The molto calmato close of the first movement has even greater concentration and a rapt. magical atmosphere, while the closing pages of the work with the climax on brass and timpani (quite riveting) followed by the Sibelian melody on the lower strings, is even more powerful in its sense of final apotheosis.
Hickox is also helped by Chandos's richer, more modern recording with its greater amplitude in both strings and brass. However, his couplings are altogether more lightweight, particularly the Overture to a Masque, written in 1940 for a Sir Henry Wood Prom but not performed because of the Blitz. It has an Elizabethan pipe and tabor atmosphere and is charming in its slightness, if perhaps a little over-long. The Magic Island (inspired by The Tempest) is a gentle evocation. beautifully scored (by a master of film music) with an ethereal violin solo at its climax. It is rather beautiful in its eclectic way. Derby Day, as sprightly a piece as the title suggests, is picaresque like a Malcolm Arnold overture, although with- out quite the same degree of pithy memorability in its invention. The closing fanfare (dedicated to the timpanist James Blades) adds plenty of percussion to the brass and, again, would make good film music. The LSO plays everything here with evident enjoyment. With such excellent recording these pieces make pleasing listening, if not as demanding as the symphony which is so cogently argued.
Hi-Fi News July 1993|
Richard Hickox's Alwyn cycle for Chandos is fairly galloping along! CB was muted in his reception for the first two releases in this series last August. I, for my part, respond rather more favourably to Alwyn's defiantly neo-Romantic stance. True, there are strong echoes here of Sibelius, Walton, Bax, and other English minor masters, but at the same time I'm impressed by the craft and deceptively subtle rigour of Alwyn's symphonic thinking. In this respect, neither of the symphonies here matches the achievement of the excitingly cogent Third (1956) - a work which, I recall, won passionate acclaim for its inner logic from no less an authority than Hans Keller - but there's still much to admire and savour.
Of the two symphonies, the First (1949) is the more effusive and undisciplined, yet its invention is always memorable and the cumulative impression it leaves touchingly fervent and heartfelt. The compelling two-movement Second (1953) is undoubtedly a tauter, more tightly organized creation (it was the com- poser's own favourite of the five) and, like its predecessor, benefits from some quite resplendent scoring - as a one-time principal flautist with the LSO, and then prolific film-music composer, Alwyn had acquired a formidable knowledge of the workings of the orchestra.
Howard Shelley makes an exemplary protagonist of the early First Piano Concerto from 1930; dedicated to Clifford Curzon (a fellow RAM student), it's an impressively assured single-movement work, at times reminiscent of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, on whose own First Concerto it was most likely modelled.
The Second Symphony comes in harness with a selection of less substantial offerings. I remember the lively overture Derby Day would often crop up on R3's old 'Morning Concert' programme, whilst the Barbirolli-commissioned Symphonic Prelude The Magic Island is a bit like Bax's Garden of Fand revisited.
Having acquainted myself with much of this music from the composer's own renderings from the mid-'70s for Lvrita (now on CD and still sounding superbly vivid), I would never have thought that this repertoire would offer the opportunity for comparative listening so soon! Fine as those Lyrita versions are, Hickox lends an extra imagination and intensity to Alwyn's vision - he certainly secures more disciplined, full-throated orchestral playing: under the composer, LPO strings suffer from occasional bouts of raggedness. Different venues (All Saints', Tooting for Symphony 1, St Jude's, Hampstead for 2) produce equally convincing, lustrous results from the Chandos engineers. Hearty recommendations, both.