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Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 29 in A major K201 (1774) [21:16] William Alwyn(1905-1985)
Symphony No. 3 (1956) [31:09] Edvard Grieg(1843-1907)
Symphonic Dances Op.64 (c.1896) [24:57]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Grieg)/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. Royal Festival Hall, 10 October 1956 (Mozart; Alwyn);
Studio 1 Maida Vale, 25 December 1955 (Grieg). Mono ADD
The Beecham Collection - Beecham in Concert SOMM BEECHAM23 [77:57]
will confess that the raison d’ętre of this CD is
the William Alwyn symphony - at least to me. Of course this
is not to suggest that the Mozart and the Grieg are not important
works. It almost goes without saying that the Beecham versions
of these compositions add to our historical understanding
and more importantly to our sheer enjoyment of music. Yet
a quick look at the Arkiv CD catalogues shows some 89 recordings
of the former and 21 of the latter. They can take care of
themselves. Whereas, the Alwyn is represented by only three
recordings in addition to the present CD - and this work
is regarded as one of his masterpieces! In addition the Alwyn
Symphony presented here is a recording of the first performance.
For that alone this is a truly historic disc.
said it is interesting to note that Beecham was deemed to
be a great Mozartian. Yet it is clear that, by and large,
he was attracted to the later symphonies, so the A major is
a relatively rare excursion into these ‘earlier’ works. The
quality of the playing is without doubt: the conductor brings
his own magic to this fine work. It certainly served as a
notable precursor to the first performance of the Alywn Symphony
on that October evening in 1956.
Grieg is fantastic. I have known these Symphonic Dances for
many years but I never cease to be amazed at just how good
they are. Ok, I concede that they will never have the popular
clout of the Piano Concerto or the Peer Gynt Suite – but
they are truly beautiful pieces. Lasting just over 25 minutes
this is a considerable work that is as interesting as it
is well written. It is not too great a stretch of the imagination
to hear pre-echoes of Delius in some parts of these pieces.
Beecham is not normally associated with the work of Edvard
Grieg; however he did explore the relatively small amount
of orchestral music during the post-Great War years.
main event here is the Third Symphony by William Alwyn. Interestingly
this first performance was supposed to have been conducted
by Sir John Barbirolli, however he was taken seriously ill.
Beecham was the replacement. The composer wrote that “Sir
Thomas was punctilious in the preparation of the score and
gave a remarkable performance, full of fire and vitality.”
modestly notes that the Symphony was well received
by the musical press. In fact they were unanimous in their
opinions. But perhaps the greatest praise came from John
Ireland: who never, himself, composed a symphony. He wrote
to Alwyn that “Your Symphony is the finest British Symphony
since the Elgar 2.”
Alwyn’s Third Symphony was written during 1955-1956. It had
been commissioned by the BBC in 1954 and was dedicated to
Richard Howgill, the then Controller of Music. Historically
this must be one of the few major musical works where the
composer kept a diary recording the progress of the piece.
It is worth quoting his words as to how he developed the
material for this work. He writes “… I use a new kind of
twelve note system, the twelve notes used in a different
way - in a tonal manner … I divided the twelve notes into
two groups – eight semitones only are used in the first movement – the
remaining four in the second movement.” He noted that in
the last movement, “the two groups are used in opposition,
but are combined in the final pages of the symphony as a
the foregoing gives the impression that this is a mathematical
work that lacks inspiration or originality, then that is
not the case. Alwyn has used his method lightly. The entire
symphony is wholly consistent with itself. Quoting the composer
again: “the thematic ideas on which the whole symphony is
based are stated clearly and I hope concisely in the first
few pages.” It is the development of these themes that gives
the sense of genius to this work. This is a “stormy and passionate
work, strongly rhythmic in the outer movements but finding
tranquillity and repose in the middle movement” and more
crucially in the last pages of the work.
is a piece that can be mined for influences. Surely the worst
thing that could be said is that it is merely ‘film’ music.
Of course Alwyn was a master of that particular art – but
he does not write disconnected episodes here - unity and
design are critical to this work. Holst is never too far
away in this piece – but this is no ‘Cold War’ Planets Suite.
Again Vaughan Williams’ Fourth and Fifth Symphonies may have
been influential, but are not parodied.
last word must go to David Drew writing in the December 1956
issue of the Musical Times. He states that “because the unity
is at the heart and not on the surface of the music, one
is spared those embarrassing displays of motivic machinery
which so often betray second-rate musical intelligence.”
sound quality of this disk is not perfect: but then again
it is over fifty years since these recordings were laid down.
They were done in ‘glorious’ mono. That said, the listening
experience is thoroughly enjoyable. And there is no doubt
that they are live – the coughs and the shuffles and applause
from the audience and players have been retained. From the
perspective of the William Alywn it is a perfect record of
a magnificent first performance of a work that was to become
regarded as a major contribution to the British Symphonic
I recommend all enthusiasts of William Alwyn’s music to buy
this CD. However I must say that the Grieg is great too!
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