About this Recording
8.557590 - ALWYN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Sonata alla toccata
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William Alwyn (1905–1985)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 • Sonata alla Toccata • Derby Day

William Alwyn shares his centenary year with Tippett, Rawsthorne, Lambert and Seiber, but, as an instrumentalist, composer, conductor, teacher and committee member, he arguably had a greater all-round influence on twentieth-century British musical life than any of them. Born in Northampton, he showed an early interest in music and as a young child started to learn the piccolo. At the age of fifteen he entered the Royal Academy of Music in London as a flute student, later winning scholarships that enabled him to continue his instrumental training while studying composition. He wrote a large number of works while establishing a career as a virtuoso flautist, and in 1926 he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Academy. The following year he joined the London Symphony Orchestra to play third flute and piccolo (his first engagement was at the Three Choirs Festival, where he took part in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius conducted by Elgar) and also had his first major orchestral work, the Five Preludes for Orchestra, performed at a Promenade Concert in London. In 1938 he took the radical step of withdrawing all his compositions, believing them to be technically unsatisfactory and insufficiently personal in style. After a second period of musical study, this time with the scores of composers he revered, he gradually built up a body of ‘mature’ works that includes five symphonies, concertos, operas, more than two hundred film scores, and much instrumental, chamber and vocal music.

Alwyn, whose name is familiar to many through his teaching works for the piano, had an enduring love of the instrument. ‘The very touch of my fingers on its keyboard is a joy in itself’, he wrote, ‘and its possibilities and sonorities are infinite’. Yet his largescale piano works are rarely performed, partly because of their demands for a virtuoso technique.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 dates from 1930 and was inspired by the musicianship of Clifford Curzon (1907- 1982), Alwyn’s fellow-student at the Royal Academy of Music and a lifelong friend. Curzon gave the first performance in December 1931, with the composer conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. One of the most innovative of Alwyn’s early works, the concerto is cast in a single movement that nevertheless falls into four recognisable sections. The first, Allegro deciso, which has a toccata-like opening, is soon followed by what is effectively the concerto’s slow movement, marked Adagio tranquillo, a gently rhapsodic development of musical ideas already presented. After a return to the mood and tempo of the concerto’s opening, a restatement of the work’s first main theme quickly builds to an orchestral climax. This quietens into the Epilogue, Adagio molto e tranquillo, the introspective beauty of which echoes that of the work’s second section and brings the concerto to a peaceful conclusion.

By the time he wrote the Sonata alla toccata fifteen years later, Alwyn was using the discipline of neoclassicism to structure his mature compositional style, but, typically, he refused to allow his natural lyricism to be straitjacketed. This ‘virtuoso piece for agile fingers’, as he described it, therefore begins with a proud C major presentation of its thematic material, followed by a series of variations in toccata form, before eventually breaking free from all stylistic constraints to end ‘in a mood of uninhibited romanticism’. The sonata was written for Denis Matthews (1919-1988), who gave the first performance at the 1953 Cheltenham Festival.

The works that open and close the programme on this disc, though quite different in scale and idiom, are closely connected through circumstance. In 1960 the BBC commissioned Alwyn’s Piano Concerto No. 2, to be given its first performance at that year’s season of Promenade Concerts by the Dutch pianist Cor de Groot (1914-1993). The result was an exuberant and deliberately crowd-pleasing work that is on a much larger scale than its predecessor. Only months before the performance, however, de Groot’s right arm was suddenly paralysed and his concert career brought to a temporary halt. The première was cancelled, and the concerto then virtually forgotten. Alwyn later revised it by excising the second movement and inserting a short orchestral passage to link the first and third, but the concerto was never heard in his lifetime – indeed, it still awaits a public performance.

Alwyn’s second wife, the composer Doreen Carwithen (1922-2003), believed strongly that the beautiful central Andante should be restored, and it is her reconstruction of the Concerto, which also features a revised conclusion of the first movement, that is heard on this recording. Such is the epic sweep of the work that it might almost be interpreted as Alwyn’s homage to Rachmaninov. After a brief crescendo on the brass, the piano introduces a series of virtuosic octave flurries that immediately establish the heroic nature of the Concerto, and the melodies that follow are typically Alwynian in their breadth and passion. But the movement is also full of incident and surprise, such as the quiet ending, after a long piano cadenza, that leads directly into the central Andante. The mood of this second movement is mostly calm and reflective, and its orchestral textures are at times reduced to almost chamber-music proportions. This movement, like the first, ends peacefully, with gentle, chorale-like progressions for unaccompanied piano.

In contrast, the finale returns to the brilliance of the concerto’s opening but now introduces jazz syncopations, played with dissonant abandon by the pianist before being taken up by the full orchestra. A calmer central section suddenly leads into a broad, expressive melody on unison strings before the strident brass rhythms of the movement’s opening bars reappear. After a long, virtuosic piano cadenza the orchestra leads the music to a breathless close that features a final, unexpected harmonic twist.

Having been forced to abandon the concerto, Alwyn was asked to substitute a short, lively piece with which the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, could open a Promenade Concert that season. The result was the Overture Derby Day, a brilliant and bustling work that uses the composer’s own version of twelve-tone technique. This is not as dry or academic as it may sound, for Alwyn, like his contemporary Samuel Barber, was an unashamed Romantic whose adoption of the twelve-tone row was grounded in tonality. At pains to point out that this technique was merely his stimulus to composition rather than an end in itself, Alwyn preferred his music to appeal to the heart rather than to the head – because of its melodic and harmonic richness rather than the mathematical precision of its structure. Derby Day was supposedly inspired by the painting of the same name by William Powell Frith, a Victorian artist who excelled in crowd scenes, but in fact the title was not assigned until after the work was written. ‘It seemed aptly to describe the excitement and vitality of the piece’, Alwyn admitted, before pointing out that composers are inspired by pictorial ideas much less often than we might suspect.

Andrew Palmer


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