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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Elizabethan Dances (1956-7) [17:33]
The Innumerable Dance – An English Overture (1933) [10:37]
Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1943-44) [18:51]
Aphrodite in Aulis – An Eclogue for Small Orchestra after George Moore (1932) [5:09]
Symphonic Prelude “The Magic Island” (1952) [10:53]
Festival March (1951) [8:05]
Jonathan Small (oboe) Eleanor Hudson (harp)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 19-22 January 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570144 [71:08]

The fruits of the partnership between Naxos and David Lloyd-Jones have surely developed into something way beyond the early expectations of either record company or listener. Whilst the breadth and technical quality of the Naxos catalogue have continued to grow apace, in Lloyd –Jones we have found a conductor that could be said to rival Vernon Handley in both his championship and interpretation of British music.
The Lloyd-Jones Alwyn orchestral cycle here reaches its fifth instalment and in doing so turns away from the symphonies and concertos to an intriguing blend of familiarity in the form of the Elizabethan Dances and The Magic Island, allied with the unfamiliar in The Innumerable Dance and Aphrodite in Aulis. The latter two works have not seen the light of day in over seventy years.
The suite of six Elizabethan Dances has long been one of Alwyn’s most popular pieces, although to describe this as light music would be potentially to trivialise the quality of the composer’s work. The pieces were however commissioned by the BBC for its Light Music Festival of 1957. As with all of Alwyn’s music they are beautifully crafted, both in terms of the inspiration and the orchestration, alternating music that calls on the times of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II for its contrasting moods. It is the slower of the dances that truly lingers in the mind, the wonderfully languid waltz that sits second in the suite and the penultimate dance, a beautiful Poco Allegretto e semplice that distantly and hauntingly echoes the earlier waltz. Many will be familiar with Alwyn’s own recording of the Elizabethan Dances on Lyrita, and a fine recording it is, although Lloyd-Jones and the RLPO here provide a very viable alternative at bargain price.
The Innumerable Dance – An English Overture, dates from Alwyn’s twenty-eighth year and as such reflects a less individual though no less finely honed compositional voice. Drawing its title and inspiration from the second book of William Blake’s Milton, the work is an evocation of spring in which the influence of several composers flits across the surface of the music. Not that this fact detracts from the overall result, which is both beautifully orchestrated and charming. It is hard to believe that this is music that has gathered dust for so long and entirely fitting that the RLPO give it a thoroughly convincing premiere recording.
In the Concerto for Oboe, Harp and String Orchestra of ten years later there is still the occasional reminder of the origins of Alwyn’s stylistic language - Delius is the most prominent voice - but there is also a sense of refinement of that language. In two substantial movements, the first a pastoral Andante e rubato and the second a lively Vivace, it is the oboe that figures most prominently whilst Alwyn’s writing for the instrument is exquisite in its nuance and subtlety.
By the time of the Symphonic Prelude “The Magic Island” Alwyn was at the height of his powers and it is immediately obvious why. From the opening bars the composer creates a gripping sense of drama in what is effectively a tone poem based on Shakespeare’s immortal passage from The Tempest commencing “the isle is full of noises”. Alwyn quotes the complete passage at the head of the score. The work easily ranks alongside the finest of the Bax tone poems and although Lloyd-Jones and the RLPO cannot quite eclipse the power of the composer’s own recording on Lyrita, it runs it pretty close.
That leaves two relative miniatures in the form of Aphrodite in Aulis – An Eclogue for Small Orchestra after George Moore, and the Festival March of 1951. The Eclogue predates The Innumerable Dance by only twelve months and is another charmingly engaging if brief work that is utterly undeserving of its neglect. In many ways the Festival March is less successful. Written on a grand scale for the 1951 Festival of Britain and very much in the manner of Elgar, or perhaps more fittingly Walton’s Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre, the piece does not possess the thematic clout to have kept it in the repertoire to the degree of either the Elgar or the Walton. It does however provide a rousing conclusion to the disc.
With two premiere recordings included, Alwyn enthusiasts cannot afford to be without this disc, which represents another notable success in Naxos’s championship of a still underrated composer. Roll on the chamber music later in the year.
Christopher Thomas

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf

British Composers on Naxos page





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