William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony No. 2 (1953) [29:31]
Symphony No. 3 (1956) [32:49]
Symphony No. 5, Hydriotaphia (1973) [14:55]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/William Alwyn
recording data not given
LYRITA SRCD.228 [77:07]
See earlier review by Colin Clarke
In these three symphonies, the attributes of William Alwyn's symphonic writing that I noted in reviewing Lyrita's previous installment (SRCD.227) are once more clearly recognizable. There's the building of movements through a progression of through-composed episodes, rather than an adherence to conventional forms; the use of short melodic and rhythmic motifs, rather than of full-fledged "tunes", sometimes in conjunction with a series of short-term tonal centers; the shifting, shimmering palette of orchestral timbres.
Listening to the present program with these features already in mind, I began to notice that, while Alwyn's harmonic language is unquestionably late-Romantic, the effect is not really "lush", in, say, the Rachmaninov manner. The music hits the ear pleasingly, but the music's seriousness of demeanour and intent militates against anything quite so frivolous as taking sheer pleasure in the admittedly attractive sounds.
In the single-movement Fifth Symphony, subtitled after Sir Thomas Browne's 1658 book, the composer parlays that seriousness into a sense of struggle - the prevailing grimness is a far cry from the amiable pastoral musings associated with British symphonists. Indeed, the anxious, edgy opening and the brooding, restless theme beginning at 3:44 cast Alwyn as a sort of English Shostakovich! Even in the violins' broad, cautiously optimistic statement near the symphony's close, the seemingly joyful pealing of trumpets actually produces a vague ambivalence that undercuts the affirmation. Annotator Trevor Hold hears the music as "fall[ing] into four clearly-defined sections, corresponding to the normal symphonic movements," but you couldn't prove it by me; as before, it's easier if the listener simply accepts the various episodes in turn, letting them generate their own structural logic.
Tensile drama also marks much of the Third Symphony, immediately reflected in the first movement's incisive, repeated-note string motifs and scurrying woodwinds; the music opens briefly into a lyrical theme which abruptly gets short-circuited by the more rhythmically active material. The Poco adagio begins cautiously - the music, not the performance - in light, diversely coloured textures; later brass interjections signal a growing into greater turbulence. Some passages in that movement suggest a more austere version of Holst's "Venus"; Thomas Mann, in the booklet, cites the more obvious resemblance to that composer's "Mars" in the finale's bold ostinatos. Those ostinatos continue behind the more legato second group; and, rarely for Alwyn, the music opens into an actual broad, lyric episode at 8:32.
In the Second Symphony, the composer uses his rich harmonic idiom to conjure searching, fragmentary effects. Each of its two movements begins in a dynamic, turbulent mood that eventually subsides into quiet, if not exactly calm. The climax of the second movement brings a sense of uplift, but, as in the corresponding passage in the Fifth, subsidiary elements of the texture compromise and contradict that uplift.
As in the earlier coupling of the First and Fourth Symphonies, the composer's own direction is authoritative, balancing the lovely sonorities and projecting the elusive structures with a sure hand. Only the brass interjections in the Third's finale briefly cause momentum to falter. The London Philharmonic plays handsomely, its positive sense of purpose outweighing passing moments of tentative coordination.
The engineering is often excellent. In the opening movement of the Second, the bassoons - used by Alwyn as a sort of "motivic timbre," analogous to the thematic motifs of the Wagnerians - register with a buzzy presence; the brass choir is deep and resplendent; clarinets are liquid; and there's plenty of air around the instrumental groups. As the brass become more active, however, the hard edge I noted on SRCD.227 returns, with the textures turning slightly opaque.
Stephen Francis Vasta
The shifting, shimmering palette of orchestral timbres.