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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony No. 5 Hydriotaphia (1973) [14:27]
Symphony No. 2 (1953) [27:22]
Lyra Angelica - concerto for harp and orchestra (1954) [28:12]
Suzanne Willison (harp)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall. Liverpool, 4-6 Jan 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557647 [69:52]

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How ironic! The composer's professional commitment to writing film music has at once excluded his music from the concert hall and provided the funding for this the third cycle of his symphonies since the 1970s. In fact all three cycles (Lyrita; Chandos, Naxos) were/are supported by Alwyn film revenues.

Alwyn's five symphonies will all appear on Naxos by the end of the year (2005) making them accessible at bargain price. They join the first cycle recorded by the composer for Lyrita (1972 onwards) and the Hickox cycle on Chandos (1990s). None are coupled in the same way as this CD. All three series are still available. Comparison is therefore an issue.

The composer's analogue recordings on Lyrita Recorded Edition sound splendid still. Mr Itter’s 1970s vintage recording team comprised Decca staff. They preserved a silky Sibelian blade on the strings (Symphony No. 2 II 11.10 Symphony No. 5 12.07) as well as spectacular analogue depth and impact. To this day those recordings have the speakers shuddering with the Shostakovich-style assaults of the second movement of the Second Symphony. Alwyn conducting Alwyn revels in his own music steering just the right side of self-indulgence. No-one can touch the composer in the meek tenderness of the valedictory pages of the Second Symphony. The music there looks to the epilogue of Bax's Seventh and Copland's Tender Land. This is all perfectly paced music-making; an impression that will again hit you as you listen from 11.15 in the Fifth Symphony. Hearing the Second Symphony after several years, as conducted by the composer, reminded me with some force of what a superb work this is.

The composer in the Fifth Symphony takes us through spectral realms. He opens the symphony with an upward sweeping, and trembling shudder of sound. It is as if a great stone has been lifted from a grave to reveal something fearfully awesome yet with a certain humbling grandeur. Baxian manners bump up against passages having the bleak majesty of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony. The work resounds with the slow tolling of bells mixed with a flowering Mahlerian adagio-paced march. The monumentalism and sheer passionate voltage of this music is quite overwhelming prompting the drawing of parallels with other fine succinct symphonic statements such as Rubbra 4 and 11, Bridge's Enter Spring (compare Alwyn's epic march from 10:11), Havergal Brian 6 and 22, Sibelius 7 and Lambert's Music for Orchestra. Add to this the creepy batwing flutter at 7:40 and the biting presence of the brass at 9.22 and you have what I consider to be one of the finest British symphonies of the last century.

Hickox's Chandos cycle includes much more than the symphonies and is still the most extensive survey of Alwyn's orchestral music. He is accorded the most forward and refulgently intense sound. The listener is brought into lapel-contact with the orchestra. It's one of Chandos's best efforts though Lyrita's is the more refined item. And when I say 'refined' it delivers a more natural sound image with a greater variety of dynamic contrast. Hickox has a tendency to lumber at moments such as the glorious peak of the Second Symphony second movement (9:23) but the massy sound of the LSO violins certainly impresses.

Hickox is again slower than both the composer and David Lloyd-Jones in the Fifth Symphony. He does however offer the unique advantage of having each of the four sections of the Fifth separately banded - a practically useful aid to study and growing familiarity.

Lyra Angelica is a harp concerto (with string orchestra) inspired by the seventeenth century English metaphysical poets such as George Herbert (RVW Five Mystical Songs), Thomas Traherne (Finzi Dies Natalis), Henry Vaughan, John Donne and Richard Crashaw. Each of the four movements carries a superscription by one of the least known of these metaphysicals, Giles Fletcher. The Naxos recording places the harp very close to the listener. In fact comparing the refined naturalistic approach of Lyrita's engineers and the gripping sound achieved by Chandos the latest Naxos leans more towards Chandos. The harp sounds the most sumptuous in the Naxos which is apt given the composer’s aim to radiate sensuous imagery and mystical fervour. Without being effete this work needs to have an elusiveness and mystery to work best.

At last here is a harp concerto that has drama and substance as well as a focus on beauty. Harp concertos often take on a limpness and all-purpose charm. Alwyn's is at least three steps forward from that. It's a memorable work and the Liverpool forces certainly do it justice. Although in the ideal world I still prefer the more openly ambient Lyrita recording of Lyra Angelica given by Osian Ellis.

Back in the real world you need to bear in mind that the Chandos-Alwyn-Hickox is available only at full price unless you buy the 3CD box of the symphonies - and then you will not have Lyra Angelica. For all the virtues of the Alwyn-Lyritas they are only to be had at very full price from Harold Moores. Lloyd-Jones' discs are the only ones accessible at bargain price. Given the considerable flair and drama brought by Lloyd-Jones this particular disc is the best single CD introduction to the major works of Alwyn. In the real world of household budgets, mortgages and families it is the place to begin your Alwyn collection. The mix of the Second and Fifth Symphonies with Lyra Angelica finds the poise between beauty and drama.
Timings are not everything but here they are:-
Symphony No. 5

Naxos [14:27]
Lyrita SRCD228 [14:55] review
Chandos CHAN 9196 CHAN 9429(3) [16:27]
Symphony No. 2

Naxos [27:22]
Lyrita SRCD228 [29:31] review
Chandos CHAN9093 CHAN 9429(3) [31:04]
Lyra Angelica

Naxos [28:12]
Lyrita SRCD230 [31:29] review
Chandos CHAN9065 ]30:25]

The major lacuna in any of these projects remains Alwyn’s grand secular oratorio of the 1930s - the monumental Blake choral work for soloists, chorus and orchestra The Vision of Heaven and Hell. All in due time.

You can safely use this recording to represent the orchestral Alwyn on your shelves. It is a stronger and more substantial mix than the valuable two piano concertos Naxos CD issued last month. The present CD represents an exciting harbinger for the rest of the series including symphonies 1, 3 and 4 ... and watch out because 4 is a real sonic spectacular.
Rob Barnett

Alwyn web-site

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