One hearing of William Alwyn's scores suffices to "place"
them in the British twentieth-century symphonic tradition. Closer
listening, however, reveals that Alwyn has a few distinctive
stylistic tricks up his sleeve that distinguish him from his
contemporaries and compatriots.
The music falls agreeably on the ear, in the familiar post-Vaughan
Williams manner that you might reflexively think of as "melodic".
Soon enough, however, you realize that you're not hearing many
actual "tunes". Alwyn instead assembles his movements
from short rhythmic and melodic motifs, of the sort considered
readily susceptible to symphonic development. Even when a broad
melody threatens to break through, like the high strings' second
subject in the First Symphony's opening movement, it shortly
gets interrupted or detoured. The sophisticated, sometimes intricate
working-out of the motifs, together with a recurring pose of
concentrated introspection, heightens the impression of musical
substance and emotional importance.
The composer's writing is unquestionably tonal, but he uses
tonality in an individual, sometimes very short-term
way. At times, while each episode centers on a clear harmonic
"home base," those tonal centers can shift repeatedly,
and dramatically, over the course of a movement. So do the moods
and textures - as in the Adagio ma non tanto of the First,
when the hectic pumping brass chords abruptly give way, at 5:26,
to a searching violin solo - with Alwyn fashioning distinctive,
contrasting sonorities from diverse combinations of instruments.
In the outer movements, the composer avoids recognizable sonata
and rondo forms - annotator Trevor Hold hears at least some
of the Fourth's finale as a passacaglia. Instead, Alwyn relies
on the well-wrought series of musical events to generate structural
logic, which doesn't always work: the finales of both symphonies
feel padded. Still, the individual events hold interest at any
given moment, even when the music's large-scale progress isn't
The interpretations are presumptively authoritative. The composer
perhaps doesn't have the technical command of a full-time conductor:
in the Fourth, with its driving rhythms, ensemble marginally
loosens in the intricate development; there's some nervous coordination
the First, and the landing at 5:01 is clumsy. But he guides
the lighter-textured passages with assurance, and the performances
sound unfailingly purposeful and effective. The LPO plays well
enough: the high strings aren't intense enough in the first-movement
climax of Symphony 4, but the high horns in Symphony 1's opening
movement are secure and confident.
Lyrita's sound is a notch below the standard it's set elsewhere,
notably in its Rubbra series: the tuttis here have a
bit of a hard edge. But Alwyn's variegated orchestral palette
reproduces with plenty of depth, and the resonant basses in
the first movement of Symphony 1 have a terrific presence and
focus. The company, as usual, offers no session information,
but list original publication dates of 1977 for the First Symphony
and 1975 for the Fourth, with matching respective copyright
dates for the program notes.
All told, devotees of the British symphonists should find this
worthwhile: a nice change of pace, perhaps, from the denser
sonorities of Rubbra or the less clearly substantive essays
Stephen Francis Vasta
See also review by Colin Clarke
See William Alwyn Website