I derive great pleasure in posting this review
because Music on the Web owes its very existence to my interest in Alwyn's
music. In the late 1970s the BBC broadcast Alwyn's opera Miss Julie.
Alwyn's name was unknown to me so I wrote to the BBC expressing how much
I had enjoyed the opera and seeking more information on the composer. I waited
many months for a reply during which time I read Francis Routh's
chapter in Contemporary British
Composers and started to explore the symphonies on the Lyrita recordings
that were then emerging. In the intervening years I have found that when
I do have time to listen for pleasure it is often these symphonies I choose.
They bring that rare response of having listened to a symphony
one immediately wants to hear it all over again.
Eventually my letter did elicit a reply - from
the composer! I was then able to help in ensuring that his 75th birthday
was recognized and have given several programmes to recorded music societies
introducing his music to a wider audience. When Andrew Palmer founded the
William Alwyn Society I offered to create a
web site. Music on the Web stems
from that. The Alwyn web site is one of the largest of my composer web sites
and you will find there further details of the discs mentioned below. I had
the pleasure of attending the postumous premiere of Miss Julie at the Norwich
Festival in October 1997. I notice that
CD selections are currently offering
Miss Julie for £12.99 - HURRY!
WILLIAM ALWYN - A ROMANTIC COMPOSER OF HIS
TIME by Ian Carmalt
Photo courtesy of Reg
WILLIAM ALWYN (1905-1985)
The complete symphonies on CHANDOS
by Rob Barnett
Symphony No. 1 (1949) 40.46 (41.13)
Symphony No. 2 (1953) 31.04 (29.31)
Symphony No. 3 (1956) 34.35 (32.49)
Symphony No. 4 (1959) 38.42 (35.14)
Symphony No. 5 Hydriotaphia (1973)
Sinfonietta for Strings (1970) 25.18
recorded Mar 1992 - Jan 1994 all digital recordings DDD LSO/Richard
3 CDs [187.19]
[Note: the timings in brackets are the timing of the Lyrita performances
recorded 1972-77 and available on 2 ADD CDs SRCD227 and SRCD228
without the Sinfonietta)
Long before even the first instalment of their Rubbra cycle had been launched
Chandos had completed an intégrale of the symphonies by fellow Northampton
composer, William Alwyn.
This box anthologises the symphonies from a sequence of individual discs
in which each symphony was partnered by other orchestral works. In some aspects
the Chandos project was a risky enterprise. After all, so far as the symphonies
and quite a few other orchestral works are concerned these works had already
been recorded by Lyrita during the 1970s.
The Lyrita sequence, first issued on LP, has now been reissued on CD generously
coupled but still at premium price. The recording quality of the Lyritas
now a quarter of a century old is no slouch but that comes as no surprise.
Richard Itter's company has always chosen its engineers well (viz the resounding
but subtly textured Moeran Symphony recording with Boult and the NPO). In
addition the Lyritas carry the extra authority of the composer's own conducting.
However the Chandos series was much more ambitious. It took in the chamber
music, piano music, film music and much else including early works (violin
concerto and two piano concertos) avoided by Lyrita. No doubt this was
facilitated by funds from the Alwyn Estate.
While the Chandos sequence remains wide-ranging it still seems to have avoided
tackling some of the most intriguing works of the 1930s, the principal lacuna
being the great oratorio for soli, chorus and orchestra The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell. This sets texts by William Blake and mixes this visionary
material with Paul Gauguin's South Sea images.
Another major gap in the shelf is a recording of the opera Don Juan, The
Libertine. Lyrita have their own recording of Miss Julie. Perhaps
the Estate will be able to assist with funds for recording both the oratorio
and Don Juan.
Now to the matter in hand.
The CHANDOS packaging is tastefully minimalist with a monochrome slip-case
design. The notes (available on the Alwyn Web Site) tend to lean towards
needless technicality. We could have done with more biographical material
and perhaps notices indicating how the works were received when first performed.
The sense of authority and presence has a discreetly commanding and breathy
immediacy. The recording captures the natural ambience of the hall. Orchestral
material is presented without the slightly over-cooked and congested effect
that disfigured several of the Chandos Bax series.
THE FIRST SYMPHONY conveys a sense of flower petals inexorably unfolding
in slow motion and does so to the strains of string writing and languidly
prominent brass contributions. The string chorales are reminiscent of Roy
Harris whose influence is also to be heard on the pages of John Veale's
contemporaneous Symphony No. 1. The effect is somewhat Baxian with some of
the ebb and flow of Bax 7 and Tapiola. The ague-shaken strings and
Straussian eruptive horns (8.20) of the first movement make way for the
intoxicatingly Sibelian woodwind of the second with masculine optimism abounding
amid the horn section and the orchestra revelling in mementoes of Moeran
(symphony in G minor), Walton (Symphony 1) and Elgar 2.
It is Elgar who comes to mind during the hooded lament of the third movement.
The finale is a knockabout brattishly rowdy brawl with the shivery urgency
and swing of the strings taking us again to Elgar; this time the
INTRODUCTION AND ALLEGRO. There is a touch too of Bliss COLOUR
SYMPHONY in the slowed motion wind flourishes. All ends in a hurly-burly
of brass; an almost Handelian shindig before the brass calls of the first
movement are recalled alongside the sad crestfallen majesty of Bax 5.
The Lyrita recording's analogue sound in Symphony No. 1 is plush but has
a subtly distressed quality like the crazing on old china. Alwyn hints more
directly at Shostakovich 5 and gives a febrile and free rein to Don Juan
style horn exultation in the first movement, joyous horn barking reminiscent
of fellow Northamptonian, Malcolm Arnold in the second and a Brucknerian
uproar at the close.
Contrary to the apologetic notes SYMPHONY NO. 4 strikes me as the most
satisfactory of the four (I totally agree - LM). It is a work
of dynamism and excitement. One might almost have expected the credits to
roll and John Williams' name to come up at various points. Howard Hanson
and Janacek's Taras Bulba are also reference points as is Holst's
Jupiter. It is not all derring-do. There is also an apotheosis in
which sweet contentment, resignation and indomitable resolve seem to be the
Lyrita's No. 4 traverses a landscape in which the viola solo has much in
common with Carl Davis's music for the BBC adaptation of The Mayor of
Casterbridge. The brass stomp and are gloriously, indeed abrasively,
throaty. Waltonian brilliance is abroad - a clashing echoing clamour makes
for one of the most exciting tracts of twentieth century music. In no way
are you sold short but the quality of the sound, though better than respectable,
is not quite up to the DDD transparency and impact of the Chandos.
The FIFTH SYMPHONY in Hickox's hands is neither as taut nor as atmospheric
as the composer's Lyrita recording which has an irresistible granitic tread.
It is without doubt the masterwork amongst the symphonies: compact, noble,
tragic and bell-haunted. The work stands well and unashamed in company with
the great single movement symphonies of this Century including Rubbra 11,
Harris 7 and Sibelius 7. Hickox is no stranger to conveying tension and that
quality and others are there in his Chandos recording. However the awed sense
of noble death and the lifted charnel stone is that much more vivid in the
composer's Lyrita recording even if once again the Lyrita cannot match the
superb transparency and sheer punch of the Chandos.
The SINFONIETTA FOR STRINGS is rather four-square. It is a Plain Jane
of a work although high claims are made for it. Its string writing suggests
Vaughan Williams Partita, English serenade music and Berg. It has
the pitter-patter energy of Bernard Herrmann's and Franz Waxman's Sinfoniettas
for string orchestra. Herrmann's doom-laden Night Digger score might
be a blood brother in the second movement. The hurtling rush of the Fifth
Symphony is there in the last movement but there are too many academically
fugal chase games for its own good. Like the second symphony this is not
a crowd-pleaser and not the place to start an exploration of the Alwyn works.
Speaking of the SECOND SYMPHONY, Hickox treads the borders between sleep
and waking. The mood is banished by a vexed finale; barking, Baxian, alive
with figures and wraiths out of Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice. Towards
the close of this work the radiant fire-clouds boil up in what is, for me,
the high spot of the symphony. However overall it is a work which offers
up satisfaction only reluctantly.
Lyrita's SYMPHONY NO. 3 is the 'grey-beard' among the recordings considered
here. It is more than a quarter of a century old but still impresses in its
stout fellow defiance, solar plexus jolts and raucous blaze. As a performance
the Lyrita is to be preferred to the degrees cooler Hickox despite the clear
superiority of the Chandos sound for Hickox. I rate this symphony below number
5, 4 and 1 (in that order) however even I warmed to Alwyn's achieved sense
of sunny uplands and hard-won contentment in the final pages of this much
TO SUMMARISE: The Chandos recordings are brilliant and the interpretations
are lively and steer well clear of the routine. The composer's recordings
on Lyrita can be had on two full price CDs. The Lyrita sound is creditable
but inferior to the Chandos. There is not that much to choose between
the performances but usually I would shade towards the composer rather than
Hickox. The choice is yours. You will not regret purchasing either. The Chandos
three discs are available at a special reduced price. The venerable Lyritas
are, like the rest of their catalogue, at full price.
© Rob Barnett
OTHER ALWYN REVIEWS from HUBERT CULOT
William Alwyn - A Memorial Tribute
by Hubert Culot