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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphonies: No. 1 (1949) [41’13]; No. 4 (1959) [35’14]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/William Alwyn
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The London Philharmonic seemed to take Alwyn to its heart for these two eminently approachable symphonies in warm-hearted performances, recorded in crystalline detail yet with full-bodied sound.

The First Symphony was dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli and was composed in 1949. The first movement reveals a sure structural grasp (the music is always directional, always sure of where it is going); the second movement is a mercurial Scherzo revealing the LPO on magnificent, quixotic form. Accents are perfectly highlighted and there is a real sense of life coming from within. The Trio is an oasis away from the rhythmic verve of the Scherzo, making the rhythmic life the more effective when it bursts back upon the scene.

The hushed lyricism of the cello line towards the start of the Adagio ma con moto is a marvel here, phrasally tender and tonally lush. Surely this is the symphony’s peak, for it is here that Alwyn’s invention is at its most unforced. The finale, despite its ‘allegro jubilante’ marking, includes a fair few shadows that seem determined to rain on the music’s parade – things are not as clear-cut in Alwyn the symphonist as may be assumed from Alwyn the miniaturist.

The Fourth Symphony dates from a decade later. It begins in a gentle and undemanding fashion – the tonally-ambiguous melodic lines give the music a fluidity that is certainly most appealing. Climaxes are impressive (as in the First Symphony, there is no doubt as to the LPO’s dedication); the extended Scherzo (longer than the first movement, in fact) is marvellously sprightly. This gives way to the tranquillity of the finale, a tripartite Adagio-Allegro-Adagio structure, the final Adagio section of which contains the most moving music on the disc. Well worth exploring.

Booklet notes by the composer (for Symphony No. 1 only) are enlightening. Alwyn lists as his influences here as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Richard Strauss’s Don Juan as well as Schoenberg, Szymanowski and Scriabin (the latter in particular Prometheus and the Poem of Ecstasy). Actually for all its fluidity of invention, the music is not quite as exciting as that heady list might imply – but it is tremendously involving taken on its own terms. At its best it can seem an exhilarating and rewarding journey.

Colin Clarke

Session photographs

Alwyn web-site

The Lyrita catalogue

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