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Penguin Guide, January 2009

On Naxos a worthy addition to David Lloyd-Jones’s survey of the Alwyn symphonies, and those who have collected the companion issues need not hesitate. The Sinfonietta is a particularly fine work.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, January 2009

William Alwyn (1905–1985) has been overshadowed by his more famous British contemporaries, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and Tippett. In the sense that his musical voice is not as unique and distinctive as theirs, he probably should be considered to be on a slightly different level than those colleagues. But he surely does not deserve the almost complete neglect he has had in concert and recording life outside of the UK. Alwyn’s music may contain echoes of others (one hears reminders of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Walton in particular), but it is music that will give any sympathetic listener a great deal of pleasure. Alwyn’s music is clearly of the 20th century, but his musical DNA is just as clearly that of a Romantic. His symphonies have about them the sense of grand gesture and dramatic impact that were in short supply in the middle third of that century, and his keen ear for orchestration and his ability to craft genuine melodies just add to the effectiveness of his works.

There is a third Naxos disc (8.557647) that completes the cycle of Alwyn’s five symphonies (and adds a Harp Concerto), but I haven’t heard it. Listening to these two discs, my first reaction was, as it had been in the past, that these works are unjustly neglected. They are well shaped, build to impressive climaxes, and are filled with imaginative writing and deeply felt poetry. I then went to the Chandos complete set under Richard Hickox (CHAN 9429), Dutton’s wonderful transfer of Barbirolli’s recordings of the first two (CDSJB 1029), and the Lyrita set conducted by the composer (SRCD 227 and 228, out of print), and found even more power and beauty in the music.

These Lloyd-Jones recordings are more than adequate presentations of Alwyn’s symphonies. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic plays with rhythmic incisiveness and precision, and the tempos and tempo relationships are all convincing. But when you set them aside those older recordings, the short­comings become evident as well. The principal ones have to do not with matters of technical execution or structural deficiencies, but with matters of color, dynamics, and balance. This is an area of performance that is a bit harder to put into words than issues regarding tempo, or precision, or intonation­but it is one of the most crucial issues in distinguishing performances from each other. Music is, after all, about sound-and the quality of the sound produced by a performance is central to that performance’s success. That may be particularly true in Alwyn’s rich and carefully thought-out sound world.

These performances seem to me to be harder in sound than their recorded rivals. The strings in particular do not have the plushness of tone found on the Hickox set and the others. Brass tends to dominate a bit in the overall sonority, and there are not as many gradations of soft in these performances than there are in the others. The result is that the beauty and grandeur of the music is more completely conveyed in the recorded competition.

Alwyn’s Lyrita set is hard to find now and despite the obvious authenticity of having the composer on the podium, there are a few awkward transitions of tempo and other signs that Alwyn’s principal career was not that of conducting. For those who love his music these discs would make a wonderful second set. The same can be said of the Barbirolli—though here it is the early—1950’s monaural sound that is the biggest hindrance. Barbirolli was closely associated with these works;. he gave the first performance of Symphony No. 1, commissioned the Second and introduced the Fourth at a Proms Concert in 1959. He clearly loves the music and gives wonderfully committed readings, but there is so much color in this music that one misses the openness of modern stereophonic sounds.

Richard Hickox’s Chandos set is all that one could ask for in this music. Chandos’s rich record sound suits the music perfectly, Hickox and the LSO seem to revel in the rich sonorities and the coloristic and dynamic variety inherent in the scores and there is a wonderful combination of momentum, lyricism, and grandeur in these performances.

Again, I don’t want to be too hard on this new set. If you can’t find the Chandos set and the music interests you, these are not in any way poor performances. And Naxos’s recorded sound, while not quite as spacious as Chandos, is open and clear and natural. If this new cycle serves to call attention to these wonderful scores, then it will have serves a noble purpose.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, August 2008

Naxos reach the conclusion of their Alwyn symphony cycle in fine style with the three-movement Fourth Symphony and the shorter, pithier Sinfonietta, which is also in three movements. Once again, competition, and strong competition at that, comes from the composer himself in recordings that he made for Lyrita in the 1970s.

I recently reviewed the Naxos pairing of the First and Third symphonies, fine works both, and the general points of comparison that I noted then as between the Lyrita releases and the Naxos newcomer apply here also. In summary, the composer tends to be a bit more expansive than David Lloyd-Jones, taking 35:14 for this symphony against Lloyd-Jones’ 32:13. Alwyn is better served by the Lyrita engineers and has an even better orchestra at his disposal, the London Philharmonic tending to have the edge over the excellent RLPO, especially in terms of richness of tone. However, the RLPO still give extremely good accounts of these works, as was the case on the other disc that I reviewed, and, as we shall see, the expansiveness factor isn’t by any means completely in the composer’s favour. Indeed, many will relish the crispness and general thrusting approach of David Lloyd-Jones.

A fairly common thread running through the first four Alwyn symphonies is an association with Sir John Barbirolli. This is maintained in the Fourth, of which he gave the first performance. The music in all four works often seems tailor-made for JB and that’s certainly the case here. The Fourth is a very fine symphony indeed and Alwyn displays his usual affinity in writing for a full orchestra—the scoring is consistently a delight to the ear and often very resplendent. One recalls that the composer was himself a professional orchestral flautist for many years and so, like Malcolm Arnold, knew the modern symphony orchestra from the inside. Alwyn is assured in handling the orchestra and it seems to me that he’s equally assured in his handling of musical material. Furthermore the material is often distinguished and memorable.

Near the start of the first movement of the Fourth, for example, we hear a fine, yearning theme on strings and horns, which makes an immediate and very positive impact on the listener. Once the opening maestoso has run its course a busy and bustling allegro takes centre-stage and here we get ample evidence of another prominent Alwyn trait, namely rhythmic drive. . Eventually the pace slows once more and after a powerful passage the subdued mood in which the movement began is reasserted.

The central scherzo is the pivotal movement in the work. It begins with relentless rhythms, and a motif that sounds like a descending peal of bells is well to the fore. The trio is slower and often more spare in texture. When the breathless scherzo material returns one might think we’re in for a conventional ABA form, but we’re not. Alwyn cleverly varies his material so that it’s anything but a straightforward repeat, teasing the listener’s ear to spot the differences second time around. In all, it’s an excellent movement, which generates genuine excitement. After this the finale opens in a much-needed mood of calmness. There’s a really lovely theme on violins, supported by the rest of the strings. At length this is passed to other sections of the orchestra, most notably to a solo flute. It’s very romantic stuff, with more than a whiff of nostalgia at times. However, the music never wallows for an instant; Alwyn is not a self-indulgent composer. The intensity of the music builds very naturally and with the sense of inevitability that marks out a fine symphonist. There’s a passing reminiscence of the scherzo before a conclusion of some grandeur. I find the ardent lyricism of this movement very satisfying and not a little moving.

Comparing Lloyd-Jones’ performance with that of the composer I find that there’s very little to choose between them in the first movement. The scherzo is where I think Alwyn has a clear edge. He gets playing of real bite from the LPO, whose horns—so often such an important element of Alwyn’s scoring—are quite superb. Indeed the LPO brass as a whole offer playing that is often thrilling. Their woodwind colleagues are also a bit crisper in their delivery than I hear in the Liverpool account. In the finale Alwyn draws out the opening melody even more luxuriantly than does the eloquent Lloyd-Jones and he’s very spacious in the last few minutes of the piece, when his performance is very ripe and full. However, some listeners may well prefer the greater element of urgency in the Naxos version and though I think that the Alwyn reading has more presence—in both musical and sonic terms—the Lloyd-Jones version is very impressive indeed. Frankly, I’m happy to have both versions of this fine symphony in my collection.

The Sinfonietta is a much later work and I find it rather more astringent in its harmonic language, certainly in the outer movements. Once again we find Alwyn taking quite a bit longer than Lloyd-Jones. In this case his version plays for 26:24 whereas Lloyd-Jones, without sacrificing any lyrical generosity, only takes 22:51. Listeners will notice one big difference, I think, between the two performances on the Naxos disc. The recordings were made at different times and to my ears the recorded sound in the Sinfonietta is closer—though not unpleasantly so by any means—and more rich and full than is the case for the symphony. The two works were recorded by different technical teams, which may well have something to do with it. Another factor may be that, with only a string section to balance, the engineers felt comfortable in placing the microphones closer to the players. Whatever the reasons, while the sound for the symphony is very good I prefer the sound accorded the Sinfonietta. Indeed, this recording is, in sonic terms, much more of a challenge to the Lyrita productions than anything else we’ve heard in this Naxos series.

Coincidentally, just as in the symphony, in this work too there’s little appreciable difference between the two conductors in the first of the three movements. In this movement vigorous passages alternate with more reflective sections. Of particular note is a haunting violin solo near the end. The slow movement is a very lovely creation, in which we hear music of rich, warm simplicity from start to finish. It’s beautifully played here. Lloyd-Jones and his players display real concentration and generate a fine ambience. Alwyn and the LPO give us a performance that’s deeply felt too but its appreciably longer—Alwyn takes 7:19, Lloyd-Jones, without ever sounding rushed, a “mere” 5:42. Such is the finesse and tonal depth of the LPO strings that they’re easily able to sustain this expansive tempo but I wonder if it isn’t Lloyd-Jones who serves the music best through imparting just a bit more forward momentum.

The finale has a brief, whirlwind opening before what is to become a complex fugue begins quietly. Alwyn works out this fugue at some length before the work achieves a short, radiant coda. Alwyn himself takes a whole two minutes longer over this movement—Lloyd-Jones is just short of nine minutes—and I wonder if he’s a bit too deliberate in his pacing. Throughout the five symphonies I’ve felt a marginal—but only marginal—preference for the composer’s readings, but here in the Sinfonietta the situation is reversed and I prefer Lloyd-Jones. But, as in the symphonies, it’s a marginal decision and a preference for one conductor over the other most certainly does not imply that one performance is “better”. I find that in all the works where I’ve been able to compare them both Alwyn and Lloyd-Jones present convincing and satisfying readings and, frankly, the listener is spoilt for choice.

It’s been a stimulating experience to return to these five fine symphonies and to have the opportunity to compare the composer’s undoubtedly authentic views on the scores with the equally valid and committed thoughts of another interpreter. Above all, I come away from these recordings with a feeling of frustration and, candidly, anger that these eloquent and well-wrought works are almost completely absent from our concert halls and the airwaves. That’s a cause for shame on the part of concert promoters and broadcasters. However, the three companies who have given us distinguished recordings of the complete Alwyn symphonies—I do not forget Chandos—deserve sincere thanks for their enterprise.

The Naxos series is particularly to be commended since the bargain price and the long marketing reach of the label should bring Alwyn’s music to its widest audience to date. As is so often the case with this label the only thing “cheap” about this CD is the price. This is a fine disc and a worthy conclusion to the Naxos Alwyn symphony cycle. I recommend it strongly.

S.G.S., May 2006

Alwyn’s fourth symphony was the last of a planned cycle. Apparently, four different solutions to symphonic writing came to him at one go, and this inspired him to embark on the multi-work project. He also wrote a fifth symphony, inspired by Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, but it came much later and connects to the others weakly, if at all. One idea, which the composer referred to as a “motto” (although it tends to appear anywhere in a particular movement), runs through the set, further binding all four together.

Alwyn sings in a big, neo-Romantic way, sort of an off-shoot of the Walton First. His symphonies have the richness of a Dickens novel, a Shakespearean prodigality of invention given shape by a master of thematic manipulation. The bag of basic themes is small—essentially three for the whole symphony, although the composer himself speaks of two groups of three pitches each. However, the composer’s brilliance in varying them gives the illusion of more entropy than the actual case. Nevertheless, this kind of microscopic attention to detail and the deliberately limited thematic resource in hindsight points to the composer’s later brief adaptation of dodecaphonic serialism (essentially confined to one incredible work, the string trio of the Sixties). The orchestral sounds are varied and, in general, sumptuous. The fourth symphony constitutes no exception, and indeed the impression of a thematic flood probably makes itself felt even more strongly than in the other three. In my opinion, it’s also the most unconventional formally, with an opening allegro, a scherzo (probably the weightiest movement), and a slow finale, all around ten minutes long.

In contrast to, say, the typical Mozart or Beethoven counterpart, the first movement does not present a rhetorically cohesive structure. Indeed, the mood changes so many times, the argument risks falling apart entirely. As far as the “eye” goes, all is fine: the “tunes” all share a family resemblance. The ear, however, has to do a lot of work. It reminds me of a family dinner where each member talks about his particular day, without much of an attempt to relate to the stories of others. There’s very little in the way of conventional transition. Changes are either short or downright abrupt, mostly pivoting on a kind of rhythmic punning. A three-note dotted rhythm suddenly becomes a syncopated six-note rhythm, although you can tell how he moves from one to the other. At times, this kind of shift reminded me of the classic spoonerism, “The shore was strewn with erotic blacks.”

The second movement, a barbaric scherzo enclosing a worrisome trio, may bring to mind Holst, in particular the Fugal Overture (scherzo) and The Planets’ “Saturn” (trio). What I’ve come to regard as the symphonic cycle’s “motto-rhythm” pounds out prominently in the scherzo. All sorts of contrapuntal tricks pop up (including the scherzo subject played against itself upside-down, in canon, and every which way but loose), and one encounters brilliant orchestral touches, including a marvelous passage for violin solo in chords at the scherzo subject’s return.

The slow finale updates the Mahler adagio, and here and there one finds a Mahler turn of phrase and passages of Mahler-inspired counterpoint within Alwyn’s own classic modern idiom. As the movement progresses, we recollect, not necessarily in tranquility, the earlier movements, which the adagio gently pushes away, and we end in a Mahler-like “long farewell.”

The Sinfonietta for String Orchestra counts as a “late” Alwyn orchestral work, since toward the end of his career, he concentrated on opera, vocal music, and chamber works. It followed by a few years the string trio and, although resoundingly tonal, still shows traces of Alwyn’s study of the Second Viennese School. Indeed, it combines in idiosyncratic ways fin de si�cle Viennese thematic shapes, especially in the slow, lyric passages, with English neo-classical rhythms and harmonies. Why he called it a Sinfonietta rather than a Symphony, I don’t know, unless he worried about a length of “merely” twenty-two minutes. However, to me, it’s as much a symphony as Honegger’s Second, also for strings, and matches that score’s vigor as well. The breeze from the land of Angst mit Schlag may have something to do with Alwyn’s desire to write a work dedicated to the eminent musicologist and analyst Mosco Carner, who championed the Schoenberg school, as well as Bart�k and Bloch, among others. The composer confessed that he had “centred” the work (whatever that means) on a quote from Berg’s Lulu, an opera he admired. The particular phrase “haunted” him. The Sinfonietta—in three movements, fast-slow-fast—proceeds a little more conventionally than any of the symphonies. One looks in vain for the quick changes of mood found in the fourth, for example. Things here are much more of a piece. One finds the usual contrast of “masculine” and “feminine” themes, rather than the bounteous variety of shades in the symphonies. The Viennese notes tend to sound more noticeably in the lyrical sections, and, accordingly, they achieve greatest prominence in the slow movement, which I would describe as a dodecaphonic adagio without the dodecaphony. It reminds me of Schoenberg before he tried to bury tonality, when (like Wagner in Tristan) he reveled in soars and swoops of major sevenths and minor ninths. Alwyn, however, writes more cleanly than Schoenberg. In fact, the string writing throughout the Sinfonietta shows a mastery of texture and technique. Alwyn, by the way, was a flutist. After a foot-stomping opening, the third movement settles into a variation set, which includes an intricate fugue. Here, we have the some of the mood-shifting that so strongly marks the symphonies, but the sturdy formal and rhetorical clarity takes a bit of the edge off. The work ends quietly, on a prolonged sigh.

I believe this marks the end of the Naxos/Lloyd-Jones symphonic cycle, although I read that there’s more Alwyn on the way. At least, I hope that’s true. Overall a splendid series, it competed easily with the composer on Lyrita and Richard Hickox on Chandos. Lloyd-Jones does well enough, the engineering is outstanding, and you really can’t beat the Naxos price.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group