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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Film Music: Volume 3 (arr. Philip Lane)

Suite The Magic Box (1951)
Waltz The Million Pound Note (1953)
March The Way Ahead (1944)
Suite Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
The Ride The Rocking Horse Winner (1949)
Suite Geordie (1955)
Waltz The Cure for Love (1949)
Suite Penn of Pennsylvania (1941)
March The True Glory (1944-45)
Suite The Running Man (1962)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Rumon Gamba
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 5-6 January 2005. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10349 [77:49]
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Len Mullenger conceived Musicweb International in its first incarnation as a website dedicated to the then (1996) neglected composer William Alwyn. At that stage it would have seemed beyond the realms of all probability that here in 2006, we would have not one but two cycles of Alwyn’s orchestral music emerging on two of our most enterprising independent record labels.

As Chandos release their third Alwyn film music volume, Naxos are busy completing their cycle of the symphonies in the safe hands of David Lloyd-Jones. In these days of commercial uncertainty and oft-talked of artistic indifference how lucky we are to have Chandos and Naxos and the single-minded dedication they show to their cause.

Instrumental in Chandos’s revival of Alwyn’s film music - all of which are premiere recordings incidentally and being heard for the first time outside the cinema - is the invaluable work of Philip Lane. His efforts in painstakingly reconstructing the scores have also brought the film music of Alan Rawsthorne to our renewed attention, again on Chandos.

However, coming to the Alwyn series for the first time, having missed out on volumes one and two, it struck me that the best of the film work could already have been committed to disc in the earlier volumes. The likes of Odd Man Out, The History of Mr Polly and Desert Victory are amongst the most famous of the movies Alwyn scored. In this latest volume it is the strength of the melodic invention that is in question. As always the craftsmanship is a model of its art, the music shaped and constructed beautifully and scored with a skill that confirms his earlier neglect to have been shameful. The doubts arise from the simple fact that not all of the principal themes are strong enough to remain in the memory as they should.

That said much of the music still possesses the ability to delight, none more so than in Geordie of 1955; the story of a teenager from the Scottish Highlands who becomes an Olympic hammer-throwing champion after taking a correspondence course in physical fitness. Alwyn effectively weaves in several well known Scottish folk-tunes to highly attractive effect. Anyone familiar with his Elizabethan Dances, will have an idea of the charm of which he is capable. The wonderful sense of open air in the movement entitled Watching the Eagles and the sheer delight of The Hammer Reel are amongst the highlights of a six movement suite that brims with highland atmosphere.

Alwyn wrote the music for three Walt Disney films of which Swiss Family Robinson was the most popular as well as having proved to be the most enduring. Dating from 1960 the music is here presented as a three movement suite, the opening Main Titles capturing the swirling drama of the storm that was to leave the family famously shipwrecked. At Home describes in tender terms the comfort of the existence the family finds for themselves on the island. A charming, romantic violin solo portrays the romantic interludes between father and mother: John Mills and Dorothy McGuire. The third movement depicts, in a highly typical Alwyn waltz, the family swinging from tree ropes, preceded by one of the most famous scenes from the film as the children chase an ostrich.

Of the remaining substantial suites, The Magic Box, Penn of Pennsylvania and The Running Man, it is The Running Man that contains the most striking material. By 1962 when this film was made, Alwyn’s music was falling victim to the advent of a new generation of film composers whose music provided directors with a new stylistic approach integrating elements of jazz and popular music. As if to illustrate the point the main title music heard here as the opening of Alwyn’s suite was never used, being substituted by the music of the then up and coming Ron Grainer. It is no coincidence therefore that this turned out to be Alwyn’s last score for the cinema. Both The Magic Box and Penn of Pennsylvania contain attractive music although neither contains the most enduring thematic content on the disc.

Music from five films is presented in the form of short marches, waltzes or extracts that exploit the principal themes from their respective movies. The Million Pound Note is represented by another of Alwyn’s now familiar waltzes yet despite its grace and elegance is not Alwyn at his best. The ebullient March from The Way Ahead packs a good deal of swaggering good humour into its brief two minute duration whilst a further march, this time from The True Glory, is more overtly patriotic in character and as a concert piece is possibly the more satisfying of the two as a result. The wistful opening of the Waltz from The Cure for Love employs a solo piano, the passage of the music weaving its way more dreamily than is the case with most of the other waltzes on the disc. The most interesting of the shorter extracts however is Paul’s Last Ride, drawn from the 1949 film The Rocking Horse Winner and telling the story of a young boy who is able to predict certain race horse winners whilst riding furiously on his rocking horse. Alwyn packs tremendous drama and tension into his music with Philip Lane’s reconstruction progressing from an eerie opening, to the breakneck pace of the closing bars as the boy predicts the winner of the Derby.

Production values, as ever with Chandos, are virtually beyond reproach with the BBC Philharmonic playing beautifully under Rumon Gamba, the recorded sound a model of clarity and balance. Of equal excellence are the booklet notes by Andrew Peter Knowles, giving a highly useful synopsis of each film and appealingly illustrated with portraits of the film’s stars including David Niven, Lee Remick and Alan Bates.

Christopher Thomas

see also review by Ian Lace



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