Of all the major compositions of William Alwyn, I have personally
found the Violin Concerto the least satisfying. There are three
reasons for this. Firstly, it is a long work lasting nearly
forty minutes, yet there is a seeming imbalance between movements
– the first being as long as the second and third combined.
Secondly, I believe that the ‘finale’ is less effective than
the preceding movements and never quite fulfils their challenge.
Finally, I guess that there could be a suggestion that the ‘cinema’
is never too far away from this music: it is a criticism - if
it is a criticism rather than an observation - that has also
been made of the slightly later First Symphony (review).
The opening ‘allegro’ is truly massive - and involves a considerable
diversity of musical material – some of it absolutely ravishing.
A great deal of this movement is reflective and, rather unusually,
it ends quietly. The middle ‘allegretto e semplice’ is really
a ‘song without words’ complete with a ‘haunting Irish-tinged
theme’. The final allegro is an ‘alla marcia’ which is full
of energy and exploits the soloist’s technique to the full.
The history of this Concerto is unfortunate. The composer never
heard a full performance of it. He had to ‘make-do’ with a private
concert on 3 March 1940 where a violin and piano reduction was
used. Frederick Grinke, the Canadian-born violinist was accompanied
by the composer. Henry Wood had been keen to perform this work
during the 1943 Promenade Concert series; however after three
days consideration, the ‘powers that be’ at the BBC rejected
this proposal. The work was put away and was largely forgotten
until the 1993 Chandos recording with Lydia Mordkovitch (CHAN9187).
Having raised my ‘concerns’ about this concerto, I have to confess
that there is much beautiful, attractive and ultimately satisfying
music in its pages. Coupled with this, the committed and often
moving performance given by Lorraine McAslan makes this an impressive
offering that rises above any suggestions of stylistic imbalance.
It is a work that, in spite of any perceived faults, is lyrical,
full of ideas, has well-considered writing for the soloist and
a general sense of musical competence. Certainly much of this
work is romantic with the composer often wearing his heart on
his sleeve. It has even been compared to Elgar’s great Concerto!
It is a work that could grow on me.
I can still remember listening to William Alwyn’s Miss Julie
on the Radio 3 which was broadcast on 16 July 1977. I am less
sure what I thought about the work – although I do recall that
some of the music appealed to me. I guess that the plot somehow
passed me by: opera has never been my strong point. I even recorded
the broadcast on my old cassette recorder and I still have the
tapes! However, I have never listened to it since: the Lyrita
release on CD somehow never ‘appeared’ in my collection.
Miss Julie was composed between 1973 and 1976
and is based on a play by the Swedish author and playwright
August Strindberg. Andrew Knowles gives an excellent précis
of the opera, which deserves quotation: it concerns ‘the spoilt,
rich daughter of a Count who falls under the spell of the manservant
Jean. The latter plays with Miss Julie’s affections and seduces
her, then rejects her and finally tempts her into suicide as
the only way of escape from her shame.’ Just the sort of happy
tale to cheer oneself up: no wonder I prefer Gilbert and Sullivan!
In 2000 Philip Lane was charged to adapt suitable sections of
the opera into an orchestral suite: it was commissioned by the
composer’s widow, Mary.
I guess the only raison-d’ętre of a ‘suite’ derived from an
opera is to condense the ‘good bits’ into a manageable chunk
that can be presented in the concert-hall. Other operas have
had this treatment, such as Bizet’s Carmen, Tippett’s
Midsummer Marriage and Britten’s Death in Venice.
Personally, I am ambivalent about the ‘form’: part of me says
if one wants the music from the opera, then listen to the whole
production. On the other hand, it is good to have a concise
exploration of some excellent music without the burden of the
singing and the plot.
And that is what this Suite provides the listener with – some
very impressive and often very romantic music that can be listened
I have always enjoyed the Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion
since first hearing it on the Chandos release back in 1993 with
Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra. The work was
dedicated to the well-respected percussion player Jimmy Blades.
Mary Alwyn has written that her husband often consulted Blades
‘on the complexity of writing for these instruments in the modern
It is hardly surprising that the Fanfare employs a battery
of percussion including the marimba, the vibraphone and the
glockenspiel. The work has been described as ‘flashy’; I hope
not in a derogatory sense. This is extrovert music that is extremely
rhythmic. The liner-notes omit to point out that this piece
also requires four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and
a tuba as well as three percussion players.
It opens with a brilliant ‘fanfare section’ that may
recall Walton and his ‘royal’ marches – be they for Henry, Richard,
George or Elizabeth. However the mood soon dies downs and soft
sounds from the ‘tuned’ percussion become almost ‘Arnold-esque’
in mood. The music develops through a long crescendo with the
brass and percussion combining to produce a loud and perhaps
deafening conclusion. Whether this is a great work or not is
up to the listener to decide: it is certainly impressive, noisy
The sound quality of this Naxos recording is excellent. In my
opinion it does not usurp the Hickox
‘cycle’ but gives the listener another opportunity to hear
two great works. The Miss Julie Suite is a ‘first recording’
and well-deserves success. The liner-notes by Andrew Knowles
are comprehensive, helpful and interesting with a detailed analysis
of the concerto and the suite: they also make use of the composer’s
own comments relating to the opera.
When I first bought my vinyl copy (SRCS63) of Alwyn’s Third
Symphony and Magic Island on the Lyrita label (review;
I little imagined that nearly thirty-five years later virtually
everything that the composer wrote would be available on disc
Even less conceivable would have been the thought of two or
three recordings of some of these masterworks. I think that
I am now only waiting on the Manchester Suite dating
from 1947. [I am also hoping for a recording of Alwyn’s 1930s
epic ‘oratorio’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to words
by Blake – a very expensive proposition. Ed.].
Finally, in spite of a large catalogue of recordings, it seems
a pity that William Alwyn’s orchestral music attracts so little
attention on the concert platform. I understand that the Violin
Concerto has yet to have a professional public concert performance,
in spite of there being two recorded versions. Perhaps this
will change one day, although the 2011 ‘Proms’ programme suggests
that the BBC have not changed in their attitude towards the
of Naxos Alwyn recordings
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