My previous reviews of Alwyn's five symphonies, on Lyrita
praised the composer's building of movements from short,
"symphonic" motifs. I also welcomed his reliance on
the logic of musical events, rather than traditional sonata
and rondo forms, to generate structural coherence and his knack
for diversely coloured orchestral textures. All of this is equally
evident in this collection of shorter pieces, yet the overall
effect is less positive.
One problem is that the techniques just described, while effective
in developing symphonic-length arguments, are less useful in
occasional pieces and such. These want more readily intelligible
structures and, preferably, attractive themes. The Magic
Island prelude begins promisingly. The dark atmosphere
at the start reminds us of Alwyn's success as a film
composer; woodwind solos and lyrical string fragments gradually
open up the textures, generating some surge as they expand.
The passage beginning with the chromatic violin solo beginning
at 4:37 has an unexpectedly Scriabinesque feel. The individual
episodes are colorful and listenable, but the ultimate effect
is aimless, as if the composer had arbitrarily strung together
bits of unused film music.
The Sinfonietta for string orchestra, a "serious"
score, ought to have played to Alwyn's strengths, and
for two of its three movements, it does. The trenchant parallel
chords that open the piece become a recurring motif; as in The
Magic Island, lyrical violin fragments float over them.
The chordal harmonies at the start of the central Adagio
e poco rubato sound filled-out, yet the absence of the
basses leaves a tentative, searching impression; Scriabin again
crops up in some of the violin solos. The finale has a nice
energy and drive - the players dig into the climax at 7:34 with
full-throated passion - but sticks on the contrasting secondary
material: when the presumably sympathetic annotator, Richard
D. C. Noble, refers to a passage as "the stagnant section,"
you're in trouble.
In the other scores, I'm afraid the composer's
conducting is the problem. As I indicated in those earlier reviews,
Alwyn is excellent at establishing mood and a sense of direction,
but his baton technique seems not up to enforcing ensemble in
agitated or rhythmically tricky passages, nor can he always
keep the rhythms airborne. In the symphonies, these flaws proved
a minor distraction from the overall design; here they're
harder to ignore.
Thus, what should be the bounding energy of the Derby Day
overture is compromised by nervous ensemble in the tuttis,
so it sounds anxious, even grim; the arrival at 4:00 is exciting,
but clearly not together. In four of the original set of six
Elizabethan Dances, there's some pointed rhythms
and lovely, translucent colorings -- I particularly liked the
way the various textural elements of the Moderato remain
discretely defined -- but the dances tend to lose impetus as
they proceed. The first movement of the Sinfonietta
suffers some uneasy transitions and runny playing, while the
fugue in its finale betrays insecurity. The grandeur of the
Festival March occasionally turns lead-footed, and
ensemble briefly founders in the last big statement, which I'd
have thought foolproof.
Once again, Lyrita offers no session details; publication dates
are 1975 for the Sinfonietta, 1979 for Derby Day, 1985
for the march, and 1972 for the other items. I'm glad
to have this vividly recorded program - I just wish it were
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach,
also review by Colin Clarke