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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Overture to a Masque (1940) [9:42]
Concerto Grosso No. 1 in B flat major (1943) [11:25]
Pastoral Fantasia for viola and strings (1939) [13:20]
Five Preludes (1927) [6:10]
Tragic Interlude (1936) [9:16]
Autumn Legend for cor anglais and orchestra (1954) [10:55]
Suite of Scottish Dances (1946) [7:35]
Philip Dukes (viola); Rachael Pankhurst (cor anglais)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall. Liverpool, 19, 20, 22 January 2006, 9 June 2007. DDD
Recording made with financial assistance from the William Alwyn Foundation. DDD
NAXOS 8.570704 [68:24]
Experience Classicsonline

At various times Alwyn's champions among the record labels have been Lyrita and then Chandos and now Naxos. Each has been financially supported in their projects by Alwyn or by the Alwyn Foundation. Pleasingly all three remain represented in the catalogue. If we ignore the Dutton (1, 2, Barbirolli; composer) and Somm (3, Beecham) historical one-offs you can now choose from three cycles of the complete symphonies: Alwyn/LPO (Lyrita), Hickox/LPO (Chandos); David Lloyd-Jones/RLPO (Naxos). It's remarkable when you take breath and think about it. Each successive cycle has delved just that little bit deeper into recording the Alwyn worklist. Naxos have offered up more works than either of the other two.
The romping Overture to a Masque was written in London for an intended Prom premiere but no such luck. The war intervened and the work fell from view only to be rediscovered in recent years in the archives of the LSO. It has the swagger of Reznicek's Donna Diana and Smetana's Bartered Bride. The ending is delivered with a burred brass burble of the type we also hear at the very end of Moeran's own Overture to a Masque which was written five years after the Alwyn. It is a lovely overture with some attractively memorable flute flurries within the first two minutes. The Concerto Grosso No. 1 is in three movements in a decidedly neo-classical style ŕ la Pulcinella though by no means as desiccated. It was written while Alwyn was serving as air raid warden in the London Blitz. The second movement makes less of a surrender to the neo-classical world with pensive solos for viola and cor anglais over rocking strings. The finale regains the neo-classical pepper and spice of the first movement. The Five Preludes were Alwyn's first musical triumph. Again they were written in London and this time they were premiered by Sir Henry Wood. These are miniatures ranging between 0:45 and 1:53 and encompassing moods from tranquil melancholy through to ruthlessly joyous clashing chinoiserie.  The poignant little sketches rise in the little Allegro Molto to an explosive and abrupt display.

The Pastoral Fantasia is for viola and strings. It inhabits the world of The Lark Ascending and other hymns to the surface vistas and the spiritual depths of the British countryside. The Tragic Interlude starts with the suggestion of  grandiloquent torment. Tragedy is an unmistakable and sustained aspect of this work which is linked with Richard Aldington's novel of the Great War, 'Death of a Hero' (1929). It falters forward as if staggering wounded and hopeless. The tolling underpinning to much of the writing strongly recalls the tragic undertow of Alwyn’s 1970s Symphony No. 5, Hydriotaphia - for me one of Alwyn's masterworks alongside Lyra AngelicaAutumn Legend is for cor anglais and orchestra so it might immediately suggest a link with the Swan of Tuonela; the music bears this out. The piece has a strong atmosphere and if Sibelius is one influence then another is the rhapsodic bleakness of 1920s and 1930s Frank Bridge. Bridge's There is a willow looks out on a dreamscape inspired by Alwyn’s high regard for the Pre-Raphaelite painters and especially for D.G. Rossetti. The Suite of Scottish Dances is light fare with many antique touches, a dab of Ronald Binge, a splash of romantic mystery, a whiff of heather, a hiccup of whiskey, a Mozartean gurgle and the stomp of the hornpipe.
The notes are in the safe hands of Andrew Peter Knowles who works unstintingly for the sustained Alwyn revival.
Alwyn's progress like that of fellow film music composer Rawsthorne has been fuelled at least in part by film music royalties. I hope that the Naxos project will stretch to recording Alwyn’s epic cantata to words by William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Conspicuous by its absence has been Alwyn’s Violin Concerto. Is this on the Alwyn-Naxos hit-list, I wonder?
While all but the Preludes are available elsewhere from Lyrita or Chandos this collection is unique in offering a fine selection of short but far from lightweight Alwyn pieces.
Rob Barnett

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