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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony No. 5 Hydriotaphia (1973) [14:27]
Lyra Angelica - concerto for harp and orchestra (1954) [28:12]
Symphony No. 2 (1953) [27:22]
Suzanne Willison (harp)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 4-6 Jan 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557647 [69:52]

There is no doubt in my mind that British composers contributed more to the development of the symphony in the 20th century than any other single country. Although we are used to hearing the symphonies of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton, the remainder have languished in virtually continuous obscurity since the late 1950s, mainly as a result of the change in attitudes to tonal music.

William Alwyn is a composer best known for his contribution to film music. In this respect he is very similar to Malcolm Arnold who also wrote film scores as well as contributing nine works to the symphonic repertoire. Alwyn was exactly contemporary with Michael Tippett, but how different his music sounds! Whilst he cannot be said to epitomize the English "pastoral" school, in some reviews of his music he has been accused of being the "master of the art of nostalgia". I must say that very little of this "nostalgia" comes over to me in the two symphonies included on this disc.

Like Malcolm Arnold, Alwyn has been well served by excellent recordings of his symphonies but he has been less lucky than Arnold in the concert hall. Although I can recall performances of Malcolm Arnold's 5th and 6th symphonies in London recently, I have no such recall for any William Alwyn symphony. Indeed one has to go back to the Musical Times archive to find out what people thought of his symphonies in live performances. His first symphony was premiered at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival for British music (as it was then called) and was dismissed as "film music" by the critic. The Times critic was equally disparaging in his review of the first London performance under Barbirolli in 1953. However, the first performance of his Fourth Symphony by Hugo Rignold and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s was well received. Interestingly, his third symphony was described by John Ireland as "the greatest English symphony since Elgar’s second" – praise indeed, and The Times critic at the first performance described the Third as being "able to bridge the gap that now unfortunately exists between the contemporary symphonic composer and the general public". Good for Alwyn!

The recordings of symphonies 2 and 5 on this Naxos disc are very welcome. The competition comes from Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra on Chandos and Alwyn's own performances on Lyrita (available from Harold Moores’ records). I have not had personally the opportunity to hear the rival versions but critics have praised the warmth of the Chandos recordings in comparison to the edginess and greater bite of all Alwyn's own performances.

The Naxos disc begins, somewhat curiously, with the symphonies in reverse order of composition. The Fifth Symphony was Alwyn's last work in this genre and is a short and incisive piece - in one continuous movement lasting less than 15 minutes. It was commissioned by the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival (Alwyn was living locally in Suffolk at the time) and inspired by the immortal memory of Sir Thomas Browne, the great Norwich physician and philosopher - obviously something of a hero for William Alwyn. Browne's great elegy "A discourse of the sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk" (now more generally known by its subtitle "Urn burial") is prefaced with the word "Hydriotaphia" and this is the subtitle given to Alwyn’s symphony. Those expecting an introspective pastoral discourse will be rudely awakened by the power of this score, brilliantly played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under David Lloyd Jones.

Alwyn's concerto for harp and string orchestra, a gentle work entitled Lyra Angelica, makes a very satisfying bridge between these two symphonies. It is a beautiful and subtle work with great elegance of both string and harp writing. Suzanne Willison was principal harpist with the European Union Youth Orchestra and now plays with the flautist Catherine Baker as the Alwyn duo - who incidentally gave some excellent performances at the Alwyn Centenary Concert (shared with Rawsthorne and Lambert) at the Purcell Room earlier this year (2005).

The disc concludes with the Symphony No. 2 – which was first performed by the Halle Orchestra under Barbirolli, a great champion of Alwyn, in 1953. At its London premiere the following year it was described as a "fine and well proportioned symphony". Alwyn tells us in his sleeve-notes that the symphony was his favourite of the five and was originally conceived in one continuous span, now only broken by a momentary pause before part two. It is an energetic and powerful work where each movement starts with great strength and agitation and then gently dies away at the end. As one of the premier film composers of his time, it should come as no surprise to the listener to suddenly be confronted with a beautifully luscious adagio theme, as at the end of the first movement. Indeed in much of the music of William Alwyn that I have heard, he has a remarkable ability to contrast severe and intense music with wonderfully luxurious and romantic themes, rather like Walton.

William Alwyn was not only a composer but also a poet and artist and apparently accumulated an excellent collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings. It is thus rather appropriate, especially given the Lyra Angelica for harp on this recording, that the painting, ‘The Harp Player' of Dante Gabriel Rossetti adorns the front of this CD. Committed lovers of English symphonic music will undoubtedly already have either the Hickox or Alwyn versions of the symphonies already in their collections. However, for those unfamiliar with his music and coming across his name for the first time in this his centenary year, this Naxos disc, alongside the fine recordings of the piano concertos already reviewed in MusicWeb, will make an excellent starting point. Warmly recommended.

Em Marshall

see also reviews by Rob Barnett [Bargain of the month] and Dave Billinge

link to William Alwyn Website


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