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William ALWYN (1905-1985) Lyra Angelica - Concerto for Harp and String Orchestra (1954) [28:45]
Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island (1952) [9:42] Autumn Legend for Cor Anglais and String Orchestra (1954) [10:33]
Sidonie Goossens (harp)
Roger Winfield (cor anglais)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (Lyra),
Hallé Orchestra/ Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 2 January 1955 (Lyra) (BBC Home Service broadcast); 11 June 1953, Cheltenham Festival (Island) (BBC Home Service broadcast); 5 September, 1953, Royal Albert Hall, London (Legend) BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1077 [49:20]
We’ve already had one highly important Barbirolli Society release in which Sir John conducted the music of William Alwyn. That disc contained performances from 1952 and 1953 of the composer’s first two symphonies (review). Now along comes a release of three smaller scale but still important Alwyn orchestral scores.
Robert Matthew-Walker tells us in his interesting notes that Barbirolli and Alwyn first met in 1947 when they collaborated on a film, A City Speaks, about the rebuilding of Manchester after the war. Barbirolli went on to be an active champion of Alwyn: he gave the first performances of the First, Second and Fourth Symphonies as well as the premieres of two of the three works on this disc - Lyra Angelica being the exception. Furthermore, JB commissioned the Second Symphony and though it doesn’t say so in the notes for this disc, according to the notes that accompanied the composer’s own recording of The Magic Island that piece also was written at Barbirolli’s behest.
Here we have Barbirolli giving the first broadcast performance of The Magic Island shortly after he’d unveiled it in Manchester - though not specified, the venue for this performance must have been Cheltenham Town Hall. We also hear, from a Prom concert, the London premiere of Autumn Legend. This took place a few weeks after the same forces had given the first performance at the 1955 Cheltenham Festival. It’s not hard to see why JB was attracted to these pieces. All of them have a strong lyrical impulse and as you listen to any of them it’s clear that this is music that suited him down to the ground.
Sidonie Goossens (1899-2004) had given the first performance of Lyra Angelica at the 1954 Proms with Basil Cameron conducting. The broadcast performance preserved here was possibly given in the Maida Vale studios. The sound isn’t perfect; there’s some momentary distortion, mainly affecting the harp, at one point and there’s no evidence of any bloom on the sound of the strings. However, the sound is perfectly adequate - it’s nearly sixty years old - and what matters is that the spirit of what was clearly a committed performance comes through. Barbirolli and his soloist invest the music, much of which is rhapsodic in character, with no little feeling. In the fourth and final movement, which is the only fast one, there’s good vitality.
The Magic Island is a highly atmospheric piece inspired by Prospero’s speech in Act III of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which begins ‘The isle is full of noises’. Even though the sound has its limitations Alwyn’s colourful and resourceful scoring is evident in a strong and atmospheric performance. Once again this is music that evidently appealed to Barbirolli - and it indicates why Alwyn was such an adept film composer.
Autumn Legend was inspired by Alwyn’s love of pre-Raphaelite art and the score is prefaced by some lines from The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Scored for cor anglais and strings, it contains some beautiful, soulful writing for the cor anglais, here eloquently played by Roger Winfield (1933-2007). I’ve read that Winfield was just 16 when invited to join the Hallé; this fine performance is, perhaps, a good indication of why the orchestra was so keen to recruit him. He’d given the first performance the previous July, also with Barbirolli and his Hallé colleagues and he sounds to be well inside the music. It’s just a pity that the Promenade audience, having heard such a poetic work, burst into applause before the final chord died away.
The sound on these recordings has inevitable limitations but Paul Baily has done a good job in re-mastering them. Clearly, all Alwyn enthusiasts will want - and will probably have - a modern version of each of these pieces. All are well served in the catalogue. The composer’s own Lyrita recording of The Magic Island is a good one (review) as are his accounts of Autumn Legend and Lyra Angelica (review). Those two works are also on a fine Hickox-conducted Chandos disc (CHAN 9065). Autumn Legend featured in the series of Naxos disc conducted by David Lloyd-Jones (review) while Lyra Angelica was included on another disc in that series(review). Even if you have one or more of these works in your collection this Barbirolli Society disc is well worth acquiring. It has genuine historic appeal since it lets us hear Alwyn’s earliest champion in action and, in addition, all the performances are sensitive.
The Barbirolli Society have put collectors in their debt by issuing this disc. I wonder if there is, buried in a vault somewhere, a recording of ‘Glorious John’ in Alwyn’s Fourth Symphony. And did he ever conduct the Third after Beecham premiered it?