About this Recording
8.570704 - ALWYN: Concerto grosso No. 1 / Pastoral Fantasia / 5 Preludes / Autumn Legend (Lloyd-Jones)
English  German 

William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Orchestral Music


William Alwyn composed some fifty works for orchestra, which include five symphonies, a sinfonietta, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, piano, and harp, three concerti grossi, and many other descriptive shorter pieces. In addition, there are some 200 film scores that, given the variety of subjects involved, further assisted the composer in perfecting his orchestral technique. Among these are some classic British films of the 1940s and 1950s such as Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The History of Mr Polly, The Winslow Boy, The Rocking Horse Winner, and A Night To Remember.

The seven orchestral works represented on this disc show Alwyn responding in his own individual way to the various challenges presented to him in writing for orchestra, from the early Five Preludes, in which one can sense already his keen ear for orchestral colour, through to the self-assured scoring of his maturity in the evocative Autumn Legend.

Overture to a Masque was completed in London on 1 May 1940, and its intended première was scheduled for the 24th September that same year at Queen’s Hall as part of the Promenade Season of concerts under the direction of Sir Henry Wood. However, owing to the heavy bombing of London at that time, the Government decided to close all theatres, concert halls and cinemas, and thus the première was cancelled. The work fell into oblivion and was thought to be lost until 50 years later when it was discovered in the archives of the London Symphony Orchestra prior to its first recording. The Overture is made up of three sections, two lively outer ones framing a more reflective middle section. After a brief descending figure in flutes, clarinets and bassoons, oboes announce the main theme and rhythmic idea, which develops into a lively syncopated dance. Then the opening melodic and rhythmic figure returns in the trumpets leading into the more contemplative middle section that works up to a brief climax before we return to the opening idea, this time announced by the clarinets. The syncopated dance returns, after which a tranquil mood is reached before a sudden crescendo in the horns leads to a fortissimo restatement of the opening rhythmic figure, bringing the work to an abrupt close. The Masque referred to in the title is an amateur dramatic and musical entertainment popular in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.

During 1943 when, because of the war, performances of concert music were severely restricted, out of necessity Alwyn produced many scores for the cinema encompassing both feature films and documentaries. In the latter category the most famous is Desert Victory, which included a stirring march that achieved great popularity at the time. One concert work did emerge that year, however, as a result of a commission from the BBC. This was the Concerto Grosso No. 1 in Bb that bears the dedication “To George Stratton [leader] and my friends in the LSO.” By the time of composition Alwyn had been a flautist in the London Symphony Orchestra for a number of years and had naturally made many friends within the orchestra. Initial ideas for the Concerto were sketched while Alwyn was on air-raid warden duty during the London Blitz. The work is scored for flute, oboe, cor anglais, 2 horns, trumpet, percussion, solo violin and strings and is in three movements. The first begins with a brief strident figure announced fortissimo by the strings, after which a fanfare by the trumpet is announced that is then taken up by the solo violin. This idea appears in a number of permutations incorporating a brief violin cadenza leading the movement to a vigorous close. In complete contrast the second movement provides a languorous Siciliano in which the cor anglais provides the main theme over quietly rocking strings. The third and last movement, incorporating ideas from the first, brings the work to a lively conclusion.

The Pastoral Fantasia for viola and string orchestra was composed between June and October 1939. As the clouds of war were gathering, it is clear that this gentle rhapsodic work is a nostalgic look back to an England of times past when things moved at a slower pace and life in general was more pleasant. However, with the onset of World War II this way of life would be shattered forever. The first performance was given originally in a viola and piano arrangement by violist Watson Forbes and pianist Clifford Curzon, both close friends of the composer, in a BBC broadcast in March 1940. The following year in November 1941 a first performance with string orchestra was again given by Watson Forbes with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The work would have to wait another fifty years before it would be heard again, which was a pity, given that it is such a worthwhile addition to the relatively small number of works for viola and orchestra.

The Five Preludes for orchestra, here receiving their world première recording, were completed in London on March 25th 1927 and constituted Alwyn’s first orchestral work to be performed at a Promenade Concert, on September 22nd of the same year under the direction of Sir Henry Wood. Future seasons of Promenade Concerts would include further Alwyn premières, which are as follows: Oboe Concerto – August 1949, Lyra Angelica – July 1954, Symphony No. 4 – August 1959, Overture Derby Day – September 1960 and Concerto Grosso No. 3 in August 1964, the latter under the composer’s direction. On 18 June 1927 Wood wrote to Alwyn to inform him that he had put down the Five Preludes for a performance at a Prom and was awaiting the BBC advisory board’s decision over their acceptance of his programme. The decision was obviously positive, as on July 13th Wood again wrote to Alwyn enclosing the full score and asking him to prepare the parts at once. He also added, “Would you like to conduct the work yourself?” In the event Alwyn left this to Sir Henry. In early September Alwyn was invited to Sir Henry’s Regents Park flat for a piano run through of the Five Preludes and, to Alwyn’s astonishment, Wood played the entire work from memory! In this colourfully scored work Alwyn employs a large orchestra, which is used very skilfully and to telling effect in each of these brief miniatures. The first prelude, an Allegretto in C major, is written in alternate bars of 3/4 and 2/4 with the main descending theme announced in the clarinets, trumpets and strings. A brief climax in the full orchestra is reached before the opening theme returns, which then dies away and ends with a distant piccolo and a ppp pizzicato chord on the violins. The plaintive second prelude, an Andante in D major opens with the main theme announced by oboes, taken up by piccolo, followed by clarinets, echoed by muted horns, then on strings, finally closing with the theme on piccolo accompanied by tremolando violins and harmonics on the harp. The third prelude is a waltz in A major in which the main theme is announced in the cellos accompanied by pizzicato strings and staccato flutes and clarinets. This later appears in the full orchestra, leading to a climax before the main theme returns in the cellos, delicately accompanied by flutes, clarinets, celesta, harp and pizzicato violins and violas. The violins then take up the theme embellished by flutes and muted horns, before the piece dies away. The fourth prelude an Andante con moto in E major is scored for 4 horns and strings, all muted. A calm gentle melody is announced in the strings, which could almost be a lullaby, this mood being maintained throughout its brief seventeen bars. The fifth prelude, an Allegro molto in F major, is scored for full orchestra making additional use of xylophone and side drum. The main theme is announced by the xylophone doubled by muted trumpets, and later appears on the tuba culminating in a fortissimo climax by the full orchestra with a glissando harp bringing the piece to a sudden conclusion.

Tragic Interlude for two horns, timpani and string orchestra was completed in London during November and December 1936. Originally the work started life as the first movement of the two-movement String Quartet No. 13, which Alwyn began in October 1936. It could have been soon after, although there is no clear evidence to support this, that he came across, or perhaps had just read, Richard Aldington’s novel, Death of A Hero (1929), which is the author’s literary response to the Great War of 1914-1918. This provided Alwyn with the necessary inspiration to re-score the first movement of the quartet for larger forces. At the head of the manuscript score to Tragic Interlude Alwyn quotes three lines from the novel:

and I thought of the graves by desolate Troy
and the beauty of many young men now dust,
and the long agony and how useless it was. -”

From the fortissimo anguished cry of the strings, heavily punctuated by horns and timpani, at the outset through to the pianissimo tranquillo coda, Alwyn’s passionate elegy underlines most effectively the lines from this novel, and a sense of pain, loss and desolation are all too apparent. Tragic Interlude received its first performance in a BBC broadcast on 1 April 1938, given by the BBC Midland Orchestra, conducted by Leslie Heward.

The haunting and atmospheric Autumn Legend for cor anglais and string orchestra was completed at Thornhill, Cowes, Isle of Wight, in November 1954. During the 1950s Alwyn had collected a number of Pre- Raphaelite paintings, in particular those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose work as a painter and poet he greatly admired. Indeed these paintings hung on his studio walls where he composed, and he felt at times that Rossetti was in the room with him. Alwyn has written that the piece is his personal tribute to the memory of Rossetti and regards it as one of his most beautiful works. The score is prefaced with these words from The Blessed Damozel:

Surely she leaned o’er me – her hair
Fell all about my face…
Nothing: the Autumn fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.

The music is improvisatory in nature, directly inspired by Rossetti’s words. One could say that this piece is perhaps the English equivalent of Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela. Roger Winfield (cor anglais) and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli (who became such a champion of Alwyn’s music) gave the first performance of the work at Cheltenham Town Hall on 22 July 1955.

The tuneful and delightful Suite of Scottish Dances for small orchestra from 1946 is derived from two old books of Scottish airs and dances dating from around 1790. To quote the title-pages, these consisted of ‘Favourite new country dances as danced at the Assembly’, and ‘Neil Gow’s most fashionable dances as danced at Edinburgh in 1787 and 1788.’ The suite consists of seven short dances – The Indian Queen, A Trip to Italy, Colonel Thornton’s Strathspey, Reel: The Perthshire Hunt, Reel: Loch Earn, Carleton House and Miss Ann Carnegie’s Hornpipe. The work is dedicated to Muir Mathieson, the man who had conducted the music to many British films during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, including many of Alwyn’s, and had enticed many other famous British composers to try their hand at writing music for films, including Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Bax and Arnold. The Suite of Scottish Dances received its première performance in 1946 by the BBC Scottish Orchestra under the direction of Guy Warrack.

© Andrew Peter Knowles 2008

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