Alwyn syms CHAN94293

Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2000 and the recording is still available.

William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Symphony No. 1 (1949
Symphony No. 2 (1953)
Symphony No. 3 (1956)
Symphony No. 4 (1959)
Symphony No. 5 Hydriotaphia (1973)
Sinfonietta for Strings (1970)
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1992-94
Chandos CHAN9429(3) [3 CDs: 187]

Long before even the first instalment of their Rubbra cycle had been launched Chandos had completed an intégrale of the symphonies by fellow Northampton composer, William Alwyn.

This box anthologises the symphonies from a sequence of individual discs in which each symphony was partnered by other orchestral works. In some aspects the Chandos project was a risky enterprise. After all, so far as the symphonies and quite a few other orchestral works are concerned these works had already been recorded by Lyrita during the 1970s.

The Lyrita sequence, first issued on LP, has now been reissued on CD generously coupled but still at premium price. The recording quality of the Lyritas now a quarter of a century old is no slouch but that comes as no surprise. Richard Itter’s company has always chosen its engineers well (viz the resounding but subtly textured Moeran Symphony recording with Boult and the NPO). In addition the Lyritas carry the extra authority of the composer’s own conducting.

However the Chandos series was much more ambitious. It took in the chamber music, piano music, film music and much else including early works (violin concerto and two piano concertos) avoided by Lyrita. No doubt this was facilitated by funds from the Alwyn Estate.

While the Chandos sequence remains wide-ranging it still seems to have avoided tackling some of the most intriguing works of the 1930s, the principal lacuna being the great oratorio for soli, chorus and orchestra The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This sets texts by William Blake and mixes this visionary material with Paul Gauguin’s South Sea images.

Another major gap in the shelf is a recording of the opera Don Juan, The Libertine. Lyrita have their own recording of Miss Julie. Perhaps the Estate will be able to assist with funds for recording both the oratorio and Don Juan.

Now to the matter in hand.

The CHANDOS packaging is tastefully minimalist with a monochrome slip-case design. The notes (available on the Alwyn Web Site) tend to lean towards needless technicality. We could have done with more biographical material and perhaps notices indicating how the works were received when first performed.

The sense of authority and presence has a discreetly commanding and breathy immediacy. The recording captures the natural ambience of the hall. Orchestral material is presented without the slightly over-cooked and congested effect that disfigured several of the Chandos Bax series.

THE FIRST SYMPHONY conveys a sense of flower petals inexorably unfolding in slow motion and does so to the strains of string writing and languidly prominent brass contributions. The string chorales are reminiscent of Roy Harris whose influence is also to be heard on the pages of John Veale’s contemporaneous Symphony No. 1. The effect is somewhat Baxian with some of the ebb and flow of Bax 7 and Tapiola. The ague-shaken strings and Straussian eruptive horns (8.20) of the first movement make way for the intoxicatingly Sibelian woodwind of the second with masculine optimism abounding amid the horn section and the orchestra revelling in mementoes of Moeran (symphony in G minor), Walton (Symphony 1) and Elgar 2.

It is Elgar who comes to mind during the hooded lament of the third movement. The finale is a knockabout brattishly rowdy brawl with the shivery urgency and swing of the strings taking us again to Elgar; this time the INTRODUCTION AND ALLEGRO. There is a touch too of Bliss COLOUR SYMPHONY in the slowed motion wind flourishes. All ends in a hurly-burly of brass; an almost Handelian shindig before the brass calls of the first movement are recalled alongside the sad crestfallen majesty of Bax 5.

The Lyrita recording’s analogue sound in Symphony No. 1 is plush but has a subtly distressed quality like the crazing on old china. Alwyn hints more directly at Shostakovich 5 and gives a febrile and free rein to Don Juan style horn exultation in the first movement, joyous horn barking reminiscent of fellow Northamptonian, Malcolm Arnold in the second and a Brucknerian uproar at the close.

Contrary to the apologetic notes SYMPHONY NO. 4 strikes me as the most satisfactory of the four (I totally agree – LM). It is a work of dynamism and excitement. One might almost have expected the credits to roll and John Williams’ name to come up at various points. Howard Hanson and Janacek’s Taras Bulba are also reference points as is Holst’s Jupiter. It is not all derring-do. There is also an apotheosis in which sweet contentment, resignation and indomitable resolve seem to be the subtext.

Lyrita’s No. 4 traverses a landscape in which the viola solo has much in common with Carl Davis’s music for the BBC adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. The brass stomp and are gloriously, indeed abrasively, throaty. Waltonian brilliance is abroad – a clashing echoing clamour makes for one of the most exciting tracts of twentieth century music. In no way are you sold short but the quality of the sound, though better than respectable, is not quite up to the DDD transparency and impact of the Chandos.

The FIFTH SYMPHONY in Hickox’s hands is neither as taut nor as atmospheric as the composer’s Lyrita recording which has an irresistible granitic tread. It is without doubt the masterwork amongst the symphonies: compact, noble, tragic and bell-haunted. The work stands well and unashamed in company with the great single movement symphonies of this Century including Rubbra 11, Harris 7 and Sibelius 7. Hickox is no stranger to conveying tension and that quality and others are there in his Chandos recording. However the awed sense of noble death and the lifted charnel stone is that much more vivid in the composer’s Lyrita recording even if once again the Lyrita cannot match the superb transparency and sheer punch of the Chandos.

The SINFONIETTA FOR STRINGS is rather four-square. It is a Plain Jane of a work although high claims are made for it. Its string writing suggests Vaughan Williams Partita, English serenade music and Berg. It has the pitter-patter energy of Bernard Herrmann’s and Franz Waxman’s Sinfoniettas for string orchestra. Herrmann’s doom-laden Night Digger score might be a blood brother in the second movement. The hurtling rush of the Fifth Symphony is there in the last movement but there are too many academically fugal chase games for its own good. Like the second symphony this is not a crowd-pleaser and not the place to start an exploration of the Alwyn works.

Speaking of the SECOND SYMPHONY, Hickox treads the borders between sleep and waking. The mood is banished by a vexed finale; barking, Baxian, alive with figures and wraiths out of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Towards the close of this work the radiant fire-clouds boil up in what is, for me, the high spot of the symphony. However overall it is a work which offers up satisfaction only reluctantly.

Lyrita’s SYMPHONY NO. 3 is the ‘grey-beard’ among the recordings considered here. It is more than a quarter of a century old but still impresses in its stout fellow defiance, solar plexus jolts and raucous blaze. As a performance the Lyrita is to be preferred to the degrees cooler Hickox despite the clear superiority of the Chandos sound for Hickox. I rate this symphony below number 5, 4 and 1 (in that order) however even I warmed to Alwyn’s achieved sense of sunny uplands and hard-won contentment in the final pages of this much lauded work.

The Chandos recordings are brilliant and the interpretations are lively and steer well clear of the routine. The composer’s recordings on Lyrita can be had on two full price CDs. The Lyrita sound is creditable but inferior to the Chandos. There is not that much to choose between the performances but usually I would shade towards the composer rather than Hickox. The choice is yours. You will not regret purchasing either. The Chandos three discs are available at a special reduced price. The venerable Lyritas are, like the rest of their catalogue, at full price.

Rob Barnett

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