William Alwyn – Symphonies 1 & 3

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1
Symphony No.3

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
David Lloyd-Jones

Recorded between 2-4 August 2004 in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557648
Duration: 69 minutes

From the depths begins William Alwyn’s Symphony No.1, a gradual forming of material as lyrical asides coalesce into propulsive music that is always lucidly scored. Thus Naxos’s series of William Alwyn’s five symphonies reaches Volume 2 under the sympathetic and perceptive direction of David Lloyd-Jones.

Symphony No.1 is dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli who conducted the Cheltenham Festival premiere in 1950; hopefully we have left behind the days when a ‘Cheltenham symphony’ was a far from flattering term. Certainly for a post-war work, Alwyn (1905-1985) is neither experimenting nor embracing modernism; his traditional values are laid out with skill and sincerity and the varied episodes of the first movement are palpably part of a larger, to-be-resolved, design, although the Andante espressivo section is hauntingly beautiful on its own terms.

There follows a superb scherzo, one of shifting perspectives, shadows alternating with brightness, inner reflection with energetic soaring, all intriguingly scored: an explosion of open-air force, the listener is charged with the exuberance of a windy day; this is kite-flying music of a high order, a hither and thither panoply of orchestral virtuosity, which is then countered by the darkly scored if pastoral Adagio that comes to an emotional head before the consolatory final bars. The jubilant finale gives a glimpse of Alwyn the film-music composer as the symphony heads for a cinematic close; one can sense the ‘Victory Vs’ – or maybe the 40-something composer was so proud to have completed his debut symphony – this is musical semaphore with a distinct message.Barbirolli should also have conducted symphony No.3, completed in 1956,, but his illness handed the premiere to Sir Thomas Beecham. This is tense, insistent music that grabs the attention and won’t let go, the first movement a tour de force of ingenious rhythms and orchestration. Just occasionally, as part of the cosmopolitan Alwyn’s musical armoury, something specifically ‘English’ is apparent, the occasional nod, conscious or otherwise, to Holst and to The Planets; there is an extra-terrestrial feel to this music as well as a wholly original examination of tonality.

Symphony No.3 an often-extraordinary work, utterly compelling, and this is not unknown music; the composer himself recorded it for Lyrita and Richard Hickox has done so for Chandos; yet this sounds like a first performance, so ‘new’ does the work seem; such comments are a tribute to David Lloyd-Jones’s conducting, which establishes both flow and integrity, and is a prime recommendation, Naxos’s budget price incidental to such plaudits.

The recording could be a little fuller (true of both symphonies), especially for the strings, and there is something a little synthetic about it (including the reverberation at the end of fortissimos), but the music is superb, whether in the volatile Poco adagio (in which Sibelius seems to meet Bliss’s music for “Things to Come”) or in the gawky yet quicksilver finale, the longest movement of the three, that seems to be on an enchanted journey of discovering possibilities and does so eventually in a ‘purple haze’ that rather anticipates John Williams’s ‘space’ music but without compromising Alwyn’s symphonic integrity, although the ease with which Alwyn closes the work, conventionally fortissimo, isn’t too convincing.

Overall, though, two wonderful pieces, given outstanding performances.

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