William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Overture, Derby Day (1960) [6:38]
Symphonic Prelude, The Magic Island (1952) [10:15]
Four Elizabethan Dances (1957) [12:28]
Sinfonietta for Strings (1970) [26:24]
Festival March (1950) [8:20]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/William Alwyn
recording data not provided
LYRITA SRCD.229 [64:06]
See also review by Colin Clarke
My previous reviews of Alwyn's five symphonies, on Lyrita SRCD.227 and SRCD.228, 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 better.
  Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Glad to have this vividly recorded program - just wish it were better.