President: Mary Alwyn
Patron: Vilem Tausky CBE

Oil painting Dartmoor by William Alwyn

Notes © Mary Alwyn

Symphony No 1

William Alwyn writes:
What had given Alwyn the technical competence to begin this new venture? His music for the concert hall included two Concerti Grossi, the Oboe Concerto, two overtures and a piano concerto, but there were, as yet, no large-scale works written for the modern symphony orchestra. Nevertheless, as principal flautist of the London Symphony Orchestra, he had been constantly involved in orchestral work and, even more importantly, for the past 13 years, he had been facing the problems of the new art of writing music for the British Documentary film movement.

Alwyn's music accompanied great war-time documentaries such as Desert Victory, The Way Ahead and The True Glory as well as many other short films on such unlikely subjects as Potato Blight, Harris Tweed and Rat Destruction! His 60 feature film scores include Odd Man Out - surely one of the greatest film scores ever written - The Magic Box, The Fallen Idol, The History of Mr Polly, and The Rake's Progress. All these had given him the opportunity to write for orchestras large and small, to experiment with varying groups, and, above all, to hear the result of his scoring immediately at the recording.

The circumstances in which a composer writes a work do not necessarily affect his music. This happy symphony was written under extremely adverse circumstances in the weeks preceding a major throat operation from which Alwyn knew that he had only a 50/50 chance of survival. Its first performance by its dedicatee, Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, was at Cheltenham in 1950 - at the festival inaugurated soon after the war with the principal aim of giving prominence to contemporary British Music. The work had a great reception from audiences and critics alike, who praised its imagination, eloquence, brilliant scoring and the wealth of flowing melodies.

Barbirolli immediately commissioned Symphony No. 2 - thus the cycle of Alwyn symphonies found its first patron in one of the most distinguished post-war conductors. , the first in the cycle, is in the grand manner, classical in construction but allowing full rein to his essential romantic nature. As he told an interviewer before the first performance:

Piano Concerto No. 1

During Alwyn's three student years at the Royal Academy of Music a friendship blossomed with a student of the same age - Clifford Curzon, the pianist. After one of Clifford's concerts, Alwyn wrote to congratulate him on

The "big work" written (in 1930) for Curzon was, of course, this concerto, which Alwyn later described as one of the most adventurous of his early works. The two young men gave a first performance at Bournemouth Winter Gardens on 30 December 1931 with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra - the composer conducting, and Curzon at the piano. Alwyn wrote this programme note for the first performance -

Notes © Mary Alwyn


Gramophone - May 1993

AIwyn's First Symphony is an essentially flamboyant work dating from 195O and appropriately dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli who conducted its premiere. The first movement is passionately rhapsodic, the Scherzo, in the words of the composer, "roistering and tumultuous" (and scored with spectacular vividness) but there is plenty of repose in the bittersweet Adagio with its main theme introduced on the Cor Anglais. The finale is boisterously rhetorical and extrovert. It is not a difficult piece and associations with the composer's film music spring readily to mind as the structure moves easily from event to event. Perhaps this is why Richard Hickox's new version and the composer's 1977 recording for Lyrita- are so alike. Uncannily in both the timing of the Adagio ma con moto is exactly 9'52. Of course the ebb and flow of the music is different each case but Hickox is naturally attuned to the idiom and it obviously fires him for his account has all the passion and depth of feeling of the composer's own version. The Chandos recording is spaciously, richly digital. It is obviously more modern and has a slightly wider dynamic range - one notices this especially in the Scherzo but the Lyrita stands up splendidly to any direct comparisons and certainly does not lack body, impact or colour.

So one could be happy with both, or either, and choice between the two depends on the coupling. The composer offers the Fourth symphony, a more mature piece, less inclined to let its ideas run away, as in the irrepressible finale of the first.

Hickox gives us the Piano Concerto, a much earlier work, written specifically for Sir Clifford Curzon, who was a fellow student with the composer at the Royal Academy of Music. It is ambitious in style and manner, with the epic feeling that was to make the composer so good with films. In one movement, divided into four sections, it opens with a genial toccata which frames the Adagio tranquillo and after returning leads on to a wistful epilogue. It is not thematically particularly memorable, but like the Bliss concerto has a certain panache, and in this splendid account from Howard Shelley, combines a real sweep with gentle, introspective lyricism. The recording is on a comparably large scale and is very believable.

Ivan March

Classic CD April 1993

Richard Hickox's determination to promote Alwyn is proving to be one of the more imaginative British artistic ventures of recent years and this superb disc should carry the standards even further. Hickox has a deep understanding of Alwyn's score and gives the First Symphony a reading which combines lucidity with passion. Two elegiac Adagio movements alternate lyrical melodic Allegros - Alwyn wrote the piece while waiting for a throat operation with only a 50 per cent chance of survival, although anything less like Mahlerian music under the shadow of death would be hard to imagine and Hickox persuasively reads the music's moods, digging well beneath the surface Charm.

The real treat, though. is the 15- minute Piano Concerto, reminiscent, though in no way derivative of Prokofiev: Alwyn's use of the keyboard has that same engaging Combination of percussive effect and melody. Howard Shelley makes the piece sound as though it should be a permanent part of the repertoire especially in competitions. Two superb performances, both with excellent Chandos sound quality: a fine disc.

Jeremy Beadle

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.

Andrew Achenbach


Hickox's performance of the First Symphony is just as compelling as the composer's own version on Lyrita (coupled with No. 4 - SRCD 227). Its unashamed flamboyance and energy, helped by Chandos's spectacular recording, brings great vitality to the music, while the opulent textures make the very most of the composer's spacious tapestries -of sound - so reminiscent of his best film music - and, if the finale nearly goes over the top, the exuberance is highly communicative. The poignant atmosphere of the Adagio is equally well caught. The First Piano concerto is also a flamboyant piece, written in 1930 for Clifford Curzon. It is in a single movement, but with four clear subsections: the toccata-like energy of the opening is only partly dispelled by the slow section, which alternates tranquillity and passion, before the joyful return of the toccata leads to a peaceful epilogue of considerable beauty. Howard Shelley is a splendid soloist, fully up to the rhetoric and touching the listener when the passion subsides, creating a haunting stillness at the very end. Again splendid recording.

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