William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Violin Concerto (1937-1939) [36:57]
Miss Julie Suite (arr. Philip LANE (b.1950)) (1973-1976; 2000) [17:28]
Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion (1948) [3:54]
Lorraine McAslan (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd Jones
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 5 January, 23 June 2010
NAXOS 8.570705 [58:19]

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 to ‘absolutely’.

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 symphony orchestra.’

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 and interesting.

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; review), I little imagined that nearly thirty-five years later virtually everything that the composer wrote would be available on disc (Naxos). 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 composer.

John France

Some very impressive and often very romantic music.