Wednesday, 19 October 2011

William Alwyn: Orchestral Music on Naxos

I have said this before, but it bears repeating: it is hard to imagine that a quarter a century ago there was virtually no music by William Alwyn in the record catalogues. The Lyrita symphonies were an honourable exception. Then, in the ‘nineties there was the Chandos series. And now Naxos is getting close to finishing their release of the largely complete orchestral music. I guess the added value of this particular cycle is that Naxos have discovered a number of works that were deemed to be lost. The present CD includes two orchestral (or is it three?) premieres alongside three (or is it two?) works that are less well known, but deserving of greater exposure. 
The earliest piece on this CD is the Serenade which was written in 1936 although it appears that it was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Certainly this not a pastoral ‘English’ serenade, in fact, it was Ravel who sprang to mind when I first heard it.
The work is in four contrasting movements. It begins with a Prelude which opens from a little trumpet motive into something expansive, especially for a movement that lasts just over two minutes. The second movement is a ‘Bacchanal’ which is really an attractive little scherzo. There is a good part for flute solo, that depicts ‘a piping faun leading a rout of naked nymphs and satyrs.’ Once again, this develops into huge climaxes in the space of a few seconds. The ‘Air’ is written for muted strings only. It is based on an elitist quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘’s voice speaketh gently: it appealleth only to the most awakened souls.’ The finale has ‘Home thoughts from Abroad’ written at the head of the score. Does this refer to Browning’s poem, or is it more personal? The resulting music is a little bit ‘folksy’, but can been seen as nodding towards Dvorak- even down to the 'Hovis’ music impression at the midpoint.
Taken in the round, this is not really a consistent piece. My main criticism is that there is an immense amount of ‘potential ‘in the varied material generated by the composer for this work, yet it is only some eleven minutes long. It seems that Alwyn has wasted so many good ideas and has tricked the listener into expecting something larger and more profound. However, it is good have at least one recording of it for the ‘record’.

In 1923 Alwyn had selected a number tunes from the Petrie Collection of Irish Music and produced as set of Seven Irish Tunes for string quartet. In 1936 he chose to arrange most of them for small orchestra. The tunes are ‘The Little Red Lark’, ‘Country Tune,’ ‘The Maiden Ray,’ Reel: ‘The Ewe with the Crooked Horn,’ ‘The Gentle Maiden,’ ‘The Sigh’ and a ‘Jig’. I have not heard the string quartet arrangements of these tunes; however the present orchestral version works very well. It shows that the thirty-one year old composer had a fine ear for orchestral colouring. It was an accomplishment that would stand him good stead, especially with his interest in writing film scores. These pieces are receiving their first recording.

I have known the brass-band version of The Moor of Venice since Chandos released ‘Brass from the Masters Volume 1’ back in 1997. Four years later, Philip Lane arranged this piece for full orchestra: the original work was written in 1956 as a BBC Light Programme commission. The idea behind the piece is a compression of the ‘plot’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. This is an attractive work that has the feel of a film score about it; however, it is not really a piece of ‘light’ music as suggested from the original commission. I enjoyed the orchestral version, but am not quite sure why it was/is necessary? The brass band incarnation seems to serve its purpose perfectly well. And I guess that it is more likely to be performed in that format rather than full orchestra.

The main events on this CD are the second and third Concerti Grosso. Naxos has already recorded the first of the series on 8.570704.
The Concerto Grosso No.2 was composed in 1948 and is dedicated to Muir Mathieson. This dedication is appropriate for two reasons: Mathieson was the conductor of many of William Alywn’s film scores and, secondly, there is a definite ‘film music’ feel to some, but not all, of this work.
This Concerto Grosso is scored for a string quartet group with a full string orchestra, although only the first fiddle of the ‘concertino’ seems to have an involved part. It certainly nods to Handel on a number occasions even if it is not a pastiche. The opening and closing movements are lively and cheerful however I enjoyed the second movement best which is more complex and profound and has been likened to a ‘Homage to Dvorak’. It is truly lovely music. The quality of the scoring is impressive, although the string quartet part is hardly virtuosic (as composed by Alwyn, not as played!). There is a good contrast between the 'straightforward’ themes and their ‘vigorous elaboration.’
The Concerto Grosso No.2 was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on 7 May 1950: Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Concerto Grosso No.3 is the masterpiece on this CD. In fact, I think it is one of William Alwyn’s most accomplished works. The score was completed at Blythburgh in 1964. It is important, to realise that it was a BBC commission to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944). Alwyn has written that ‘throughout the years between the wars Sir Henry Wood was the focus of my musical world. I played on his orchestras and he performed my music – the first at a Prom in 1927.’ It is a genuine tribute from a grateful composer.
In this work there is no use made of the ‘concertino’ group of soloists that is so characteristic of the ‘classical’ concerto grosso form. In this work the three sections of the orchestra interplay with each other. However in the first movement the brass dominates, in the second it is the woodwind and finally in the last is it the strings turn to take the lead.
However, if the listener thinks that this Concerto Grosso is going to be a ‘po-faced’ elegy to the great man, then they are hugely mistaken. In fact, Alwyn has suggested that it is largely written on ‘broad vigorous lines’ rather than in a ruminative style. However, the final movement is heart-renderingly beautiful, without being morbid. It is a fitting and ultimately optimistic tribute to one of the greatest figures in British music.

I enjoyed this CD, especially the Concerti Grosso. However I do feel that the other works, although interesting, are not essential. Nevertheless, they will be part of every William Alywn enthusiast’s collection and will allow scholars and listeners to gain a wider understanding of the composer’s art.
The sound quality of this disc is excellent, especially so in the concertos. I enjoyed the crisp performances and I was very impressed with the liner notes by Andrew Knowles: they are informative and comprehensive.
As to the future, I do hope that Naxos will issued the Manchester Suite, the school orchestra music and the Coronation March (if these scores are available). Apart from those pieces, I guess that most of Alwyn’s orchestral works are now available on CD. This is a magnificent achievement that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams some 40 years ago.

Track Listing:-
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Dramatic Overture: ‘The Moor of Venice’ (orch. Philip Lane) (1956; 2001)
Concerto Grosso No.2 (1948) Serenade (1932) Seven Irish Tunes –Suite for Small Orchestra (1936) Concerto Grosso No.3 (1964)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
NAXOS 8.570145
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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