William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony No. 1 (1949) [41:13]
Symphony No. 4 (1959) [35:14]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/William Alwyn
recording data not given
LYRITA SRCD.227 [76:33]
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 necessarily clear.
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 of Bax.

Stephen Francis Vasta
See also review by Colin Clarke
See William Alwyn Website
All told devotees of the British symphonists should find this worthwhile.