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Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, April 2012

Summary for the Busy Executive: Transformation.

…the Violin Concerto comes as a huge surprise. Three massive chords from the orchestra herald a scintillating annunciatory passage à la Walton, which contains the main motive of a marathon first movement. The violin enters with a Romantic, heroic part, essentially decorating and elaborating the basic idea, a rising and falling scalar fragment with a syncopated hiccup in it. Again, compared to the first piano concerto, the emotional depth astonishes. You have left a relatively safe port for the mighty ocean. Furthermore, Alwyn has begun to find a way to admit high Romantic elements into his 20th-century language, without succumbing to pastiche. It stands but little lower than the Elgar. If not one of the best concerti of all times and places, it’s certainly one of the very best produced in Modern Britain. For all the movement’s Tchaikovskian length, Alwyn keeps his architecture clear, with a strong first subject group and a lyrical second. The latter shows Alwyn’s great melodic gift, not often evident in the music he wrote up to this point. The passionate second movement takes off from Vaughan Williams’s pastoralism. We see here that although Alwyn hasn’t quite absorbed his influences, he does indeed live up to them. I suspect Vaughan Williams would have been proud to have acknowledged his descendent, had he ever heard the concerto.

The finale begins, not with fireworks, but with a warm, noble tune in the violin over a pizzicato bass. One goes through builds to various climaxes, only to fall back and begin again. The movement as a whole is notable for its lack of virtuoso flash, but in the last minute, Alwyn cannily begins to introduce it, just to prime the audience for thunderous applause. Nevertheless, the movement impresses more as a dialogue between soloist and orchestra than as display.

Alwyn’s Miss Julie, to the composer’s own strong libretto based on the Strindberg play, again is too good to ignore, although it has been. Alwyn’s knowledge of the main verismo operatic tradition, his interest in almost every musical strand of his time, and his superb dramatic sense, make this a member of a very small fraternity: a Great British Opera Not by Britten. There are memorable tunes, stunning set pieces, and again a sure dramatic sensibility that makes its points swiftly and economically. The two main influences are Puccini and, believe it or not, Berg, a composer Alwyn honored several times in his late music. Unlike both Britten and Tippett, one doesn’t get a dramatic distance through stylization. Like Puccini, Alwyn plunges in to the action fully committed, although unlike Puccini, he has a more sophisticated theater sensibility, necessary for Strindberg. The music is simply too good to lose, and the composer’s widow commissioned Philip Lane to extract an orchestral suite from the opera. He uses mainly three scenes: the party in the kitchen where Miss Julie first sees the servant Jean; the love scene; the final tragedy. It’s not a bad job, but the opera itself is so much better. I’m not really sure you can excerpt it. For me, the opera is too much of a piece, despite the presence of arias, interludes, and ensembles. Everything works together. I don’t envy the job Lane had before him.

Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion for percussion and brass, written for the percussionist James Blades, turned out to be anything but. Blades was to have premiered the work with his two brothers, also percussionists, but fell ill. What should have been an occasion became merely a premiere. The work itself calls to mind similar brass writing by Malcolm Arnold, but the virtuoso percussion writing, particularly a xylophone solo taking up the main theme, takes center stage. This is basically a lollipop. I love lollipops.

Lorraine McAslan, a champion of British music (she’s recorded works by Arnell, Benjamin, Bowen, Britten, Clarke, Holst, and Maxwell Davies), gives a strong performance of the concerto, which is no pushover. It requires close attention from both soloist and orchestra, and it gets it from McAslan, David Lloyd-Jones, and the Royal Liverpool Phil. These are no mere run-throughs, but full interpretations. The same goes for the Miss Julie suite and the Fanfare (although I could have done with a bit more juice in the latter). We’re lucky the accounts are so good, because we won’t likely receive new ones for some time to come. © 2012 Classical Net Read complete review



Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, September 2011

As many collectors will know, David Lloyd-Jones has been recording the orchestral works of Alwyn for Naxos, having completed the symphonies plus several concertos and shorter orchestral works. In general, Lloyd-Jones has been brisker and cooler, with somewhat less rhythmic abandon and tempo contrast. This approach often highlights the formal strength and expert construction of these works. That is certainly true in the concerto, where the tempos are faster, quite decidedly so in the central Allegretto e semplice movement. Here listeners may prefer Hickox and Mordkovitch, who weave a nocturnal rhapsody of unearthly beauty. Nevertheless, Lloyd-Jones and Lorraine McAslan, two-and-one-half minutes quicker at 9:30, are closer on average to an allegretto. The movement is wistful and reminiscent of a Tudor fantasia at this tempo, and the poise and artlessness of McAslan’s playing is touching in its own right.

There is little to choose in the opening Allegro ma non troppo. Both performances are powerful and responsive to the tunefulness, demonstrating Alwyn’s genius for sentiment without sentimentality. The last movement may find the earlier preference reversed. Complex and potentially episodic, it begins in a noble English style reminiscent of Elgar, but is soon coyly elusive, then clever and humorous, almost folkish. The usually peerless Hickox leaves a few less-than-seamless transitions in his quest for characterization, while Lloyd-Jones persuades us that the final movement, for all its fanfares and virtuosic flourishes, is structured all of a piece.

Soloist Lorraine McAslan was for two short years the first violinist of the Maggini String Quartet. Oddly, her biography in the booklet makes no mention of that fact. Her solo work in that ensemble’s recordings of Alwyn’s quartets (Fanfare 32:6) was one of the reasons for my enthusiasm for that release. I am pleased that while she appears to have turned her back on the quartet to return to a solo career, she has not done so to Alwyn. While not as warm in tone as Mordkovitch on Chandos, perhaps in part because she is recorded rather closely, she is every bit as effective at weaving Awlyn’s rhapsodic spells within Lloyd-Jones’s more objective framework.

I have left myself but little space to comment on the other two works, which is unfair. Philip Lane’s suite from Alwyn’s last opera, Miss Julie, commissioned by Alwyn’s second wife, Mary (aka composer Doreen Carwithen), capsulizes the decadence and hopelessness in the composer’s masterly adaptation of Strindberg’s play with selected music that is lively, sinister, and in the end harrowing. This is the only recording of the nearly 20-minute suite, though the superb complete recording of the opera is still available on Lyrita. Lloyd-Jones’s performance of the 1958 Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion for brass and percussion is marginally preferable to the only other, Hickox’s rather droll rendition, because he presents it with a lighter hand. Admittedly a short work, it simply adds to the reasons for any Alwyn fancier to immediately acquire this disc, even if in addition to the earlier Chandos releases. This should also be a good starting point for anyone now baffled at how a composer of such immense talents and easy appeal could be so neglected.



Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, September 2011

Naxos’s recording is clean, detailed, and clear cut…Andrew Knowles’s excellent notes are comprehensive, detailed, and especially useful for their coverage of the Miss Julie Suite.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.



Andrew Palmer
Strings Magazine, August 2011

As in his taut, disciplined recordings of Alwyn’s symphonies, conductor David Lloyd-Jones keeps the music moving without making it feel rushed. This is a substantial, three-movement work that English critics have likened to Elgar’s Violin Concerto. In both style and scale, Bax’s may also prove a useful comparison. Violinist Lorraine McAslan’s performance of the demanding solo is assured, but much more than a technical display—deeply expressive, but never overindulgent. The recording is beautifully clear, with McAslan placed well forward in the soundstage, but never obscuring orchestral detail.

The principal coupling is a three-movement suite arranged by Philip Lane from Alwyn’s Strindberg-based opera Miss Julie (1976). Even without voices, this is pure music-drama that reflects Alwyn’s vast experience as a film composer. Thirty-five years on from the Violin Concerto his musical gestures had become less expansive and his harmonic language more adventurous, but his Romantic heart remained firmly on his sleeve.



Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency, July 2011

The Naxos label always does things thoroughly—and now, after having recorded his complete symphonies and a good deal of his chamber music, it gives us two more CDs of the music of British composer William Alwyn (1905–1985). Alwyn was also a great film composer (for some 200 movies, the most recent of which I have seen is Carve Her Name with Pride, which has a magnificent score), whose music is rich, lyrical, and colorful. Such is the case with his early Violin Concerto, which apparently did not enjoy success during his life. It is never too late, as you will hear in this rhapsodic piece, beautifully played by violinist Lorraine McAslan with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, under David Lloyd-Jones. It is accompanied by an attractive suite from the Alwyn opera, Miss Julie.



Malcolm Hayes
BBC Music Magazine, July 2011

Performance
Recording

Alwyn’s Violin Concerto is a Cinderella among his larger works. Henry Wood wanted it performed in the 1943 Proms season, the BBC didn’t, and after a single private performance with Alwyn himself accompanying in a violin-and-piano arrangement, he never heard his Concerto again. Although this is its second recording, it still has not been publicly performed. Much of it certainly isn’t vintage Alwyn: as ever, the craftsmanship and technique are superbly sure, but compared to the haunting and beautiful central Alllegretto e semplice, the outer movements lack the composer’s characteristic sharp-focus individuality. Lorraine McAslan makes a convincing case for the work: fearsome weight of tone is not her style, but she has bravura and accuracy to spare and her musicianship’s brand of the thoughtful loveliness suits the slow movement beautifully.

Of the two other works, the Fanfare of 1964 is an unmemorable creation for brass and percussion. Much more interesting is Philip Lane’s selection of music from the August Strindberg-based opera Miss Julie, completed in 1976. The idiom here is sharply dramatic, with brilliantly focused contrasts of tone and mood, showcasing Alwyn’s Prokofiev-like virtuoso conjuring with waltz and polka dance-rhythms. David Lloyd-Jones and the RLPO respond in suitably vivid style.



James Manheim
Allmusic.com, June 2011

The Naxos label’s series of albums devoted to the concert music of William Alwyn, long known primarily for film music, has yielded lots of surprises. But few have been of the dimensions of those in the music here: a major violin concerto of the 20th century that is receiving one of its first full performances. Alwyn composed the work just before the outbreak of World War II, and it got lost in the chaos of the wartime years. It was recorded once in the 1990s, but has never been played in concert. This seems a shame, for the sizable first movement is both technically impressive and a likely crowd-pleaser. Alwyn grafts a rhapsody-like mood and a sort of picaresque treatment of the solo part—it seems to meander through a landscape defined by the orchestra and to encounter little adventures there—onto a set of materials announced at the beginning of the movement. The Miss Julie Suite that follows is drawn from a little-known Alwyn opera based on August Strindberg’s expressionist play about a noblewoman who falls for one of her servants, with grim results. The orchestral excerpts reflect the story’s psychologically heated atmosphere without abandoning Alwyn’s basic late Romantic musical language. Everything is well performed; the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones, which has been featured often in this series, benefits from engineering on its home turf, and British-born, American-trained violinist Lorraine McAslan sustains the energy in the Alwyn’s long, riverine lines. Another good find for lovers of British music.



Gramophone, June 2011

#7 - weekending April 2, 2011 by The Specialist Classical Chart (UK’s best-selling pure classical releases)




James Inverne
Gramophone, June 2011

Having never heard Alwyn’s opera of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, I can’t comment on how representative the suite that appears on this recording is—but it’s certainly a compelling work in its own right. Here it’s coupled with the little-known Violin Concerto in fine performances from David Lloyd-Jones and eloquent violinist Lorraine McAslan. Music to explore.




Jeremy Dibble
Gramophone, June 2011

The ‘serious’ music of a film composer reveals some compelling rarities

The forgotten Violin Concerto of 1939, a substantial work of 37 minutes which the composer never heard in its orchestral form during his lifetime, reminds us that William Alwyn—desperate to be considered a “serious” creative figure—was already producing works of considerable stature and symphonic design well before he began his series of five symphonies in 1948. Lloyd-Jones and McAslan give admirable shape to the long, rhapsodic first movement which, in many ways, is almost like a hybrid first movement of a symphony rather than a concerto. The reverie of the much shorter slow movement provides an effective and haunting foil to this extended essay while the similarly short but more technically demanding finale is performed with agile warmth by McAslan, whose attractive tone and expressive style seem entirely in tune with this distinctive musical language.

It is good to hear the suite of pieces from Alwyn’s last completed opera, Miss Julie (1976–79), arranged by Philip Lane. The RLPO respond splendidly to its colourful orchestration; indeed, one cannot help but feel that Alwyn’s immense experience with film helped with the invention of the opera’s strikingly vivid musical ideas, not least the sinister recurring waltz, the rich but ironic love music and the closing marcia funebre which marks Miss Julie’s offstage suicide. A recording that fuels one’s desire to hear the entire opera properly and professionally staged.




David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, May 2011

William Alwyn was a very intelligent composer. His serious concert music, rewarding though much of it is, tends to work “motivically” rather than melodically, but the violin is first and foremost a melody instrument, and so Alwyn packs his concerto with an abundance of attractive tunes. The scoring betrays his work as a film composer (check out the harp writing), but I doubt anyone will complain when the results are so vivid and appealing. Lorraine McAslan plays the piece extremely well; she’s especially affecting in the central Allegretto e semplice, but then she also attacks the virtuoso spots in the outer movements fearlessly. If you’ve been collecting Naxos’ excellent Alwyn series, you will need this release for the concerto alone.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Miss Julie Suite, not that the performance is any less fine. It was arranged by Philip Lane from the opera, a bitter, unlovely work (released on Lyrita) based on Strindberg’s depressing play about a spoiled heiress who, after a one-night stand with her father’s valet, sees no alternative but suicide. The two main characters spend the better part of two hours tormenting each other with increasing cruelty, and the music is a bit too successful in depicting the listless sadism and pointlessness of it all. In short, for me at least, neither the opera nor the suite is particularly enjoyable as music, but the concerto really is worth the price of the disc, the performances really are excellent, and so is the sound, so I see no need to reduce the rating.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2011

Naxos continue to champion the music of William Alwyn with this stunning new account of the Violin Concerto. Born in 1905, the death of his father forced Alwyn to terminate his musical education at the age of 18, though his gifts were such that three years later London’s Royal Academy of Music invited him back as a composition tutor. It was a time when England looked for Elgar’s successor, and Alwyn felt that responsibility weighing heavily on his shoulders. He was surrounded by the increasingly popular Vaughan Williams and a young upstart called William Walton, and in an act of self-criticism, he destroyed most of his early scores. He was later to compose six concertos for various instruments, the one for violin spread over the years 1937–39. A curiously balanced score where the opening movement outlasts the combined time of the second and third, the finale offering the soloist an exhibition of technical brilliance. It falls so pleasingly on the ear that it should have secured a place in the repertoire, though you need the superb Lorraine McAslan to bring out its many beauties. She has a gorgeously projected tone and an unfailingly accurate intonation. I long ago fell in love with the opera, Miss Julie, the story—not to everyone’s taste—finding the impressionable girl stealing from her wealthy father to elope with their servant, Jean. Having committed the crime he backs out and she kills herself. Remaining true to the story, Philip Lane has compiled an excellent orchestral suite splendidly performed by the Liverpool orchestra with David Lloyd-Jones conducting. The 1958 Fanfare for a Joyous Occasion makes a happy encore. Superb sound quality.



John France
MusicWeb International, May 2011

Of all the major compositions of William Alwyn, I have personally found the Violin Concerto the least satisfying. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, it is a long work lasting nearly forty minutes, yet there is a seeming imbalance between movements—the first being as long as the second and third combined. Secondly, I believe that the ‘finale’ is less effective than the preceding movements and never quite fulfils their challenge. Finally, I guess that there could be a suggestion that the ‘cinema’ is never too far away from this music: it is a criticism—if it is a criticism rather than an observation—that has also been made of the slightly later First Symphony.

The opening ‘allegro’ is truly massive—and involves a considerable diversity of musical material—some of it absolutely ravishing. A great deal of this movement is reflective and, rather unusually, it ends quietly. The middle ‘allegretto e semplice’ is really a ‘song without words’ complete with a ‘haunting Irish-tinged theme’. The final allegro is an ‘alla marcia’ which is full of energy and exploits the soloist’s technique to the full.

The history of this Concerto is unfortunate. The composer never heard a full performance of it. He had to ‘make-do’ with a private concert on 3 March 1940 where a violin and piano reduction was used. Frederick Grinke, the Canadian-born violinist was accompanied by the composer. Henry Wood had been keen to perform this work during the 1943 Promenade Concert series; however after three days consideration, the ‘powers that be’ at the BBC rejected this proposal. The work was put away and was largely forgotten until the 1993 Chandos recording with Lydia Mordkovitch.

Having raised my ‘concerns’ about this concerto, I have to confess that there is much beautiful, attractive and ultimately satisfying music in its pages. Coupled with this, the committed and often moving performance given by Lorraine McAslan makes this an impressive offering that rises above any suggestions of stylistic imbalance. It is a work that, in spite of any perceived faults, is lyrical, full of ideas, has well-considered writing for the soloist and a general sense of musical competence. Certainly much of this work is romantic with the composer often wearing his heart on his sleeve. It has even been compared to Elgar’s great Concerto! It is a work that could grow on me.

I can still remember listening to William Alwyn’s Miss Julie on the Radio 3 which was broadcast on 16 July 1977. I am less sure what I thought about the work—although I do recall that some of the music appealed to me. I guess that the plot somehow passed me by: opera has never been my strong point. I even recorded the broadcast on my old cassette recorder and I still have the tapes! However, I have never listened to it since: the Lyrita release on CD somehow never ‘appeared’ in my collection. Miss Julie was composed between 1973 and 1976 and is based on a play by the Swedish author and playwright August Strindberg. Andrew Knowles gives an excellent précis of the opera, which deserves quotation: it concerns ‘the spoilt, rich daughter of a Count who falls under the spell of the manservant Jean. The latter plays with Miss Julie’s affections and seduces her, then rejects her and finally tempts her into suicide as the only way of escape from her shame.’ Just the sort of happy tale to cheer oneself up: no wonder I prefer Gilbert and Sullivan!

In 2000 Philip Lane was charged to adapt suitable sections of the opera into an orchestral suite: it was commissioned by the composer’s widow, Mary.

I guess the only raison-d’être of a ‘suite’ derived from an opera is to condense the ‘good bits’ into a manageable chunk that can be presented in the concert-hall. Other operas have had this treatment, such as Bizet’s Carmen, Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage and Britten’s Death in Venice. Personally, I am ambivalent about the ‘form’: part of me says if one wants the music from the opera, then listen to the whole production. On the other hand, it is good to have a concise exploration of some excellent music without the burden of the singing and the plot.

And that is what this Suite provides the listener with—some very impressive and often very romantic music that can be listened to ‘absolutely’.

I have always enjoyed the Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion since first hearing it on the Chandos release back in 1993 with Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra. The work was dedicated to the well-respected percussion player Jimmy Blades. Mary Alwyn has written that her husband often consulted Blades ‘on the complexity of writing for these instruments in the modern symphony orchestra.’

It is hardly surprising that the Fanfare employs a battery of percussion including the marimba, the vibraphone and the glockenspiel. The work has been described as ‘flashy’; I hope not in a derogatory sense. This is extrovert music that is extremely rhythmic. The liner-notes omit to point out that this piece also requires four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba as well as three percussion players.

It opens with a brilliant ‘fanfare section’ that may recall Walton and his ‘royal’ marches—be they for Henry, Richard, George or Elizabeth. However the mood soon dies downs and soft sounds from the ‘tuned’ percussion become almost ‘Arnold-esque’ in mood. The music develops through a long crescendo with the brass and percussion combining to produce a loud and perhaps deafening conclusion. Whether this is a great work or not is up to the listener to decide: it is certainly impressive, noisy and interesting.

The sound quality of this Naxos recording is excellent. In my opinion it does not usurp the Hickox ‘cycle’ but gives the listener another opportunity to hear two great works. The Miss Julie Suite is a ‘first recording’ and well-deserves success. The liner-notes by Andrew Knowles are comprehensive, helpful and interesting with a detailed analysis of the concerto and the suite: they also make use of the composer’s own comments relating to the opera.

When I first bought my vinyl copy (SRCS63) of Alwyn’s Third Symphony and Magic Island on the Lyrita label, I little imagined that nearly thirty-five years later virtually everything that the composer wrote would be available on disc (Naxos). Even less conceivable would have been the thought of two or three recordings of some of these masterworks. I think that I am now only waiting on the Manchester Suite dating from 1947. [I am also hoping for a recording of Alwyn’s 1930s epic ‘oratorio’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to words by Blake—a very expensive proposition. Ed.].

Finally, in spite of a large catalogue of recordings, it seems a pity that William Alwyn’s orchestral music attracts so little attention on the concert platform. I understand that the Violin Concerto has yet to have a professional public concert performance, in spite of there being two recorded versions. Perhaps this will change one day…



WGBH, May 2011

English composer William Alwyn wrote more than 70 film scores between 1941 and 1962. He was a man of many talents—a poet, an artist, and a virtuoso flutist who played with the London Symphony. He was also a fine writer. “Composing in Words” is a collection of some of his best essays; he’s also written about his Northampton childhood; film music; Elgar; Puccini; and the process of composing his own Third Symphony. His wife was was the talented composer Darleen Carwithen.

Just released on Naxos is a beautiful, rich performance of Alwyn’s Violin Concerto, The piece was first heard in 1940 in a reduction for violin and piano with the composer at the keyboard, after which the piece fell straight into oblivion—forgotten for 50 years until it was recorded in 1993. It has still not received a professional public concert performance!

Violinist Lorraine McAslan plays with the rhapsodic temperament and warm, nuanced sound that makes the piece sound like an old friend. The hushed reverie of the second movement is beautiful, and the English qualities of the finale are beautifully paced and balanced by conductor David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.




Classic FM

Lorraine McAslan gives a heart-rending performance of Alwyn’s Concerto with superb support from the RLPO under Lloyd-Jones.

The Performances: Incredibly, Alwyn’s Violin Concerto (1939) is still awaiting its first professional performance, all the more remarkable as Lorraine McAslan plays it with such heart-rending sincerity, technical poise and beguiling tonal purity. The RLPO under David Lloyd-Jones’s inspired direction, support her to the hilt and then come into their own with a thrilling traversal of the Miss Julie Suite that captures its coruscating changes of mood with tactile precision. Like Copland’s famous fanfare, Alwyn’s also includes some exciting percussion writing along the way.

The Verdict: One of the jewels in the crown of Naxos’s Alwyn series, featuring playing and engineering of exquisite allure, and expert annotations from Andrew Knowles. © Classic FM






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