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


These works by Alwyn are reviewed in disc order starting with the 5th Symphony. The 5th is a compact four-movements-in-one piece lasting in this case less than a quarter of an hour. This is a good recording with plenty of detail allowing one to hear the full range of orchestral sound from the tumultuous opening to some very quiet central sections. It’s easier to listen to than Alwyn’s own recording on Lyrita CD with the London Philharmonic Orchestra made in the 1970s. Alwyn’s own performance is 30 seconds longer and arguably better played but the CD transfer of the Lyrita analogue original is not so kind to the strings as was the LP. This matters, as ultimately the Naxos disc allows one to hear details better. The work repays repeated listening for those who enjoy coherent lyrical music ŕ la Sibelius and Simpson. Alwyn says more in a quarter of an hour than many lesser composers manage in triple the time.

The 5th was commissioned by the Arts Council for the Norwich Triennial Festival. Appropriately Alwyn turned for inspiration to the writings of one of Norwich’s famous historical figures, the 17th century polymath Sir Thomas Browne and particularly his elegy on death Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk. Browne was a considerable luminary of the time and amongst his many interests was one in archaeology. Some burial urns had been found near the city around 1658 and his detailed study of them took the form of a study of funeral customs. Being a man of his time, the Renaissance, his writing took on a contemplative and poetic form, part science, part philosophy. For more on this intriguing figure interested readers are referred to the excellent site by Anniina Jokinen at According to Alwyn’s own notes Browne’s writing had been a longtime source of solace. The 5th Symphony, short though it is, is inspired by no less than four quotations, all mystical in tone. To a large extent all Alwyn was doing was providing a literary scaffolding for the sort of music he wrote anyway. All the music on this disc is soulful and urgent by turns. What the 5th has is a compacted power rather reminiscent of Sibelius’ slightly longer 7th Symphony.

The gorgeous Concerto for Harp, Lyra Angelica, tries to capture ‘mystical fervour’ according to Alwyn’s commentary. Suzanne Willison gets the urgency into her performance (which is 2 minutes faster than that of Rachel Masters on the obvious competition, Hickox’s Chandos CD). This must be one of the best harp concertos there is but the RLPO do not sound as excited by the piece as the LPO were on Alwyn’s own recording, nor are they on this occasion so well recorded, the detail on the Lyrita LP I used for comparison is outstanding. The Chandos performance seems more passionate than the Naxos though this could be put down to a clearer recording with a very real sounding acoustic and closer miking of the orchestra as well as slightly slower tempi. All these performances of Lyra Angelica are very good but Osian Ellis, the LPO and Alwyn are simply the best. If you do not know the work, you owe it to yourself to listen.

Alwyn notes that the critics were disturbed by his unconventional approach to symphonic form and cites that as the reason why the Symphony No.2 did not succeed in the 1950s. A more likely explanation is that it sounds like real music, it has tunes and harmonies that caress the ear – it is very un-Second-Viennese-School. Alwyn’s ability to evoke atmosphere must have been why he was such a successful and prolific composer of film music. Part One of the symphony is largely contemplative though it has plenty of con moto moments. Part Two is much more explicitly dramatic and prefigures the Third Symphony written only three years later. David Lloyd-Jones fails to make the rhythmic undercurrents urgent enough. It needs more pent-up energy. If you want to hear the way it should go then try Alwyn’s own recording on Lyrita.

What I like about Alwyn is that he always sounds like Alwyn. The quietly passionate lyricism and the angry outbursts might place him in the same category as Vaughan Williams but the two remain quite distinct with Vaughan Williams embracing a wider range of expression as well as more orchestral colouring. Alwyn may be a more limited composer but what he does he does impressively well. This disk can be placed alongside those of the composer and Richard Hickox and its price as well as its performance quality make it a valuable contribution to the Alwyn discography.

Dave Billinge

see also Review by Rob Barnett August Bargain of the Month

link to William Alwyn Website







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