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Wolfgang 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]
BBC Symphony Orchestra, 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]
Experience Classicsonline


I will confess that the raison d’être 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.
 
That 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.
 
The 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.
 
The 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.”
 
Alwyn 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.”
 
William 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 comprehensive whole.”
 
If 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.
 
It 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.
 
The 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.”
 
The 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 Project.
 
Naturally, I recommend all enthusiasts of William Alwyn’s music to buy this CD. However I must say that the Grieg is great too!
 
John France

see also review by Rob Barnett
 


 


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