Naxos reach the conclusion
of their Alwyn symphony cycle in fine
style with the three-movement Fourth
Symphony and the shorter, pithier Sinfonietta,
which is also in three movements.
Once again, competition, and strong
competition at that, comes from the
composer himself in recordings that
he made for Lyrita in the 1970s.
I recently reviewed
the Naxos pairing of the First and
Third symphonies, fine works both, and
the general points of comparison that
I noted then as between the Lyrita releases
and the Naxos newcomer apply here also.
In summary, the composer tends to be
a bit more expansive than David Lloyd-Jones,
taking 35:14 for this symphony against
Lloyd-Jones’ 32:13. Alwyn is better
served by the Lyrita engineers and has
an even better orchestra at his disposal,
the London Philharmonic tending to have
the edge over the excellent RLPO, especially
in terms of richness of tone. However,
the RLPO still give extremely good accounts
of these works, as was the case on the
other disc that I reviewed, and, as
we shall see, the expansiveness factor
isn’t by any means completely in the
composer’s favour. Indeed, many will
relish the crispness and general thrusting
approach of David Lloyd-Jones.
A fairly common thread
running through the first four Alwyn
symphonies is an association with Sir
John Barbirolli. This is maintained
in the Fourth, of which he gave the
first performance. The music in all
four works often seems tailor-made for
JB and that’s certainly the case here.
The Fourth is a very fine symphony indeed
and Alwyn displays his usual affinity
in writing for a full orchestra – the
scoring is consistently a delight to
the ear and often very resplendent.
One recalls that the composer was himself
a professional orchestral flautist for
many years and so, like Malcolm Arnold,
knew the modern symphony orchestra from
the inside. Alwyn is assured in handling
the orchestra and it seems to me that
he’s equally assured in his handling
of musical material. Furthermore the
material is often distinguished and
Near the start of the
first movement of the Fourth, for example,
we hear a fine, yearning theme on strings
and horns, which makes an immediate
and very positive impact on the listener.
Once the opening maestoso has
run its course a busy and bustling allegro
takes centre-stage and here we get ample
evidence of another prominent Alwyn
trait, namely rhythmic drive. . Eventually
the pace slows once more and after a
powerful passage the subdued mood in
which the movement began is reasserted.
The central scherzo
is the pivotal movement in the work.
It begins with relentless rhythms, and
a motif that sounds like a descending
peal of bells is well to the fore. The
trio is slower and often more spare
in texture. When the breathless scherzo
material returns one might think we’re
in for a conventional ABA form, but
we’re not. Alwyn cleverly varies his
material so that it’s anything but a
straightforward repeat, teasing the
listener’s ear to spot the differences
second time around. In all, it’s an
excellent movement, which generates
genuine excitement. After this the finale
opens in a much-needed mood of calmness.
There’s a really lovely theme on violins,
supported by the rest of the strings.
At length this is passed to other sections
of the orchestra, most notably to a
solo flute. It’s very romantic stuff,
with more than a whiff of nostalgia
at times. However, the music never wallows
for an instant; Alwyn is not a self-indulgent
composer. The intensity of the music
builds very naturally and with the sense
of inevitability that marks out a fine
symphonist. There’s a passing reminiscence
of the scherzo before a conclusion of
some grandeur. I find the ardent lyricism
of this movement very satisfying and
not a little moving.
performance with that of the composer
I find that there’s very little to choose
between them in the first movement.
The scherzo is where I think Alwyn has
a clear edge. He gets playing of real
bite from the LPO, whose horns – so
often such an important element of Alwyn’s
scoring – are quite superb. Indeed the
LPO brass as a whole offer playing that
is often thrilling. Their woodwind colleagues
are also a bit crisper in their delivery
than I hear in the Liverpool account.
In the finale Alwyn draws out the opening
melody even more luxuriantly than does
the eloquent Lloyd-Jones and he’s very
spacious in the last few minutes of
the piece, when his performance is very
ripe and full. However, some listeners
may well prefer the greater element
of urgency in the Naxos version and
though I think that the Alwyn reading
has more presence – in both musical
and sonic terms – the Lloyd-Jones version
is very impressive indeed. Frankly,
I’m happy to have both versions of this
fine symphony in my collection.
is a much later work and I find it rather
more astringent in its harmonic language,
certainly in the outer movements. Once
again we find Alwyn taking quite a bit
longer than Lloyd-Jones. In this case
his version plays for 26:24 whereas
Lloyd-Jones, without sacrificing any
lyrical generosity, only takes 22:51.
Listeners will notice one big difference,
I think, between the two performances
on the Naxos disc. The recordings were
made at different times and to my ears
the recorded sound in the Sinfonietta
is closer – though not unpleasantly
so by any means – and more rich and
full than is the case for the symphony.
The two works were recorded by different
technical teams, which may well have
something to do with it. Another factor
may be that, with only a string section
to balance, the engineers felt comfortable
in placing the microphones closer to
the players. Whatever the reasons, while
the sound for the symphony is very good
I prefer the sound accorded the Sinfonietta.
Indeed, this recording is, in sonic
terms, much more of a challenge to the
Lyrita productions than anything else
we’ve heard in this Naxos series.
as in the symphony, in this work too
there’s little appreciable difference
between the two conductors in the first
of the three movements. In this movement
vigorous passages alternate with more
reflective sections. Of particular note
is a haunting violin solo near the end.
The slow movement is a very lovely creation,
in which we hear music of rich, warm
simplicity from start to finish. It’s
beautifully played here. Lloyd-Jones
and his players display real concentration
and generate a fine ambience. Alwyn
and the LPO give us a performance that’s
deeply felt too but its appreciably
longer – Alwyn takes 7:19, Lloyd-Jones,
without ever sounding rushed, a "mere"
5:42. Such is the finesse and tonal
depth of the LPO strings that they’re
easily able to sustain this expansive
tempo but I wonder if it isn’t Lloyd-Jones
who serves the music best through imparting
just a bit more forward momentum.
The finale has a brief,
whirlwind opening before what is to
become a complex fugue begins quietly.
Alwyn works out this fugue at some length
before the work achieves a short, radiant
coda. Alwyn himself takes a whole two
minutes longer over this movement –
Lloyd-Jones is just short of nine minutes
– and I wonder if he’s a bit too deliberate
in his pacing. Throughout the five symphonies
I’ve felt a marginal – but only marginal
– preference for the composer’s readings,
but here in the Sinfonietta the
situation is reversed and I prefer Lloyd-Jones.
But, as in the symphonies, it’s a marginal
decision and a preference for one conductor
over the other most certainly does not
imply that one performance is "better".
I find that in all the works where I’ve
been able to compare them both Alwyn
and Lloyd-Jones present convincing and
satisfying readings and, frankly, the
listener is spoilt for choice.
It’s been a stimulating
experience to return to these five fine
symphonies and to have the opportunity
to compare the composer’s undoubtedly
authentic views on the scores with the
equally valid and committed thoughts
of another interpreter. Above all, I
come away from these recordings with
a feeling of frustration and, candidly,
anger that these eloquent and well-wrought
works are almost completely absent from
our concert halls and the airwaves.
That’s a cause for shame on the part
of concert promoters and broadcasters.
However, the three companies who have
given us distinguished recordings of
the complete Alwyn symphonies – I do
not forget Chandos – deserve sincere
thanks for their enterprise.
The Naxos series is
particularly to be commended since the
bargain price and the long marketing
reach of the label should bring Alwyn’s
music to its widest audience to date.
As is so often the case with this label
the only thing "cheap" about
this CD is the price. This is a fine
disc and a worthy conclusion to the
Naxos Alwyn symphony cycle. I recommend
it strongly. Bravo, Naxos and David
See also reviews by Rob
Barnett and Jonathan