Sinfonietta for String Orchestra
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool between 2-4 August 2004 (Symphony) and 4 January 2005
Reviewed by: Michael Quinn
Reviewed: March 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557649
Duration: 55 minutes
David Lloyd-Jones’s stirring traversal of William Alwyn’s symphonies concludes with a superbly nuanced reading of the Fourth that stands favourably besides the composer’s recording, coupled with a compelling rendition of the Sinfonietta.
Completed in 1959 and intended as a de facto coda to a cycle begun a decade earlier (the Fifth Symphony, composed some 14 years later, was a late and somewhat unexpected half-sibling), the Fourth Symphony is an impressively constructed piece in three equally apportioned movements. Mature and sophisticated, it revels in Alwyn’s most assured orchestration, its constantly shifting moods and atmospheres shot through with vividly executed details – magnificently buffed flourishes of darting brass that recall Janáček, strings vehement enough to push determinedly forwards and outwards yet delicate enough to cusp the most fragile of melodies, and flexible but incisive percussion that Holst could not have bettered.
David Lloyd-Jones was wise to leave this fractured, multi-faceted piece to last in his highly worthy Naxos cycle, even with a Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra that is self-evidently on top form. And wise, too, not to be cowed by the composer’s formidable 1970s’ recording with the London Philharmonic for Lyrita or by Richard Hickox’s committed but overly polished LSO performance for Chandos.
Lloyd-Jones brings an element of engaged but eloquent detachment to bear on a dynamic and elegantly long- and loose-limbed score that begins in a pianissimo mood of veiled mystery, peaks in a scherzo of relentless energy and concludes in a moment of sublime orchestral majesty, mapping it out with an easy assurance and refusing to indulge the more effusive moments where Alwyn the veteran film composer comes bustling to the fore. Full of acutely observed character that endlessly develops and moves incessantly forward, while retracing Alwyn’s steps back to the First Symphony, Lloyd-Jones delivers an impeccably paced reading that encourages and repays repeated listening. The shrewdly framed recording is neither as forward as the composer’s own, nor as lustrous as Hickox’s, an approach that occasionally dulled the exuberance of earlier symphonies in this cycle but which here comes persuasively into its own.
The coupling, the underrated Sinfonietta for String Orchestra from 1970, with its sepulchral echoes of Bernard Herrmann in the haunting second-movement Adagio is a decidedly more agitated work (as you might expect of a piece that takes Berg’s “Lulu” as its starting point) and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s strings respond accordingly. Phil Rowlands’s sound is brighter, less diffuse, and further forward than Mike Clements’s is for the symphony (different producers, too), and Lloyd-Jones engages with the Sinfonietta at full throttle, using it to foreground detail while shaving three minutes off Alwyn’s own recording. It’s a reading every bit as vigorous as Hickox’s but more disturbing, less willing to err on the side of tenderness, a coruscating approach that confronts the nocturnal chill of Alwyn’s allusion to Berg head-on and is to be applauded and preferred for that alone.