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CD Review

William Alwyn

  • Symphony #2
  • Symphony #5 "Hydriotaphia"
  • Concerto for Harp "Lyra Angelica"
Suzanne Willison, harp
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.557647 69:52
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Summary for the Busy Executive: All-winners.

William Alwyn suffered from an embarrassment of talent. Not only did he compose a substantial body of music, conduct, and play the flute at a professional level, he became a creditable painter and a well-respected poet and translator from French. I say "suffered" because I wonder how much his range of activity obscured the reception of his music. Essentially, the LP, specifically from the Lyrita label (of blessed memory), built Alwyn's reputation, at least beyond Britain.

Alwyn belonged to what I call the "Walton wing" of British music: tightly symphonic, modern in idiom, though not pointedly avant-garde, and with a deep Romantic undercurrent. Unlike Vaughan Williams, there's little connection to folk music or Ravel. Unlike Britten, there's little connection to Mahler or Stravinsky. Most of Alwyn's mature works take from something like Walton's first symphony – incredibly influential among Britain's so-called "lost generation" of composers, essentially those writers who started around World War II and got obscured in the rise of postwar serialism and aleatorics. I've heard many decry the circumstances, but although I admit that some wonderful music went ignored, I also believe that the attention brought much wonderful music to light. Contrary to the opinions of some, the rise of post-Webernian serialism and the avant-garde after World War II didn't stem from a cabal of pedants out to destroy the True and the Beautiful. Instead, it came from a perception of creative impasse – that the old ways of doing things seemed played out (it wasn't true, of course, but that's how it felt), that the very sounds of music had become predictable and consequently tired. Serious listeners and composers wanted to explore something new. Of course, the revolution itself grew predictable. The then-avant-garde created its own set of cliches, and music changed again. Tonality came back, although it wasn't quite the tonality that composers had given up. Indeed, the intervening years had altered how composers thought of tonality. Alwyn himself felt the influence of serialism, indeed surrendering to it in at least one masterpiece – his string trio – but he was also a fully-formed composer. He didn't lose his voice when he sang a new song. At any rate, all the works here are quite tonal, very Romantic, very Waltonian.

I recall reading somewhere that Alwyn conceived of his first four symphonies at one go: that is, he found in one stroke four different paths to the problem of writing a symphony. The second symphony, formally cast in two large movements, plays with two initial motifs, a falling major third with a scalar rise back to the initial note and an insistent rhythm on one note. Alwyn varies this ingeniously. For instance, what I call "the second subject" – not really that, since Alwyn doesn't base his symphony on classical sonata-allegro – is really a combination of a chromatic falling third and a rise from the initial note. He combines this with the one-note ostinato. Rhetorically, the movement begins in worry, but becomes increasingly purposeful, until wild fanfares call out, about midway through. This breaks apart into more worry, which builds into a slow, solemn march, which also rises to a peak and breaks. A lament, marked "molto calmato" and dominated by solo cello, fills out most of the rest, and the movement ends with bare statements of the "second subject." The second movement begins with a scherzo whose opening outcry reminds me of the one in the Vaughan Williams fourth. It too plays up the one-note ostinato and fools around with the major-third idea, sometimes sounding it backwards, sometimes upside-down. After a few builds and falls, the scherzo gives way to a gorgeous, lush melody of a kind normally associated with Rachmaninoff. Still, it all comes from the falling third and the ostinato. The passion subsides into a valediction (molto tranquillo), and the symphony ends quietly, with the winds, brass, and strings each having their say with the major motif, and finally waves goodbye with soft brass in a chordal statement of the motif above the quiet pizzicato of the low strings outlining the same idea. This powerful assured symphony, only his second, nevertheless confused critics who, with the example of Vaughan Williams before them, should have known better. Because of its poor reception, it became Alwyn's own favorite – like parents who among their children favor the schlimazel.

The fifth symphony comes from the early Seventies, almost fifteen years after the fourth, so it stands a bit apart from the others. Inspired by the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, the fifth – taut and compact – not only runs to one movement (several sections, of course), also every theme derives from a chromatic alarum motif at the very beginning. Indeed, the composer works in a slightly more dissonant idiom than listeners who've heard an Alwyn piece before may expect. Still, if you like Shostakovich, Alwyn's language should pose no problems. Despite the initial inspiration and, indeed, quotations from Hydriotaphia heading the various large sections, the symphony works just fine without a program. Certainly the program counts for less in Alwyn than it does in, say, Strauss's Eulenspiegel – the latter a dramatic program, the former more abstract. Indeed, I suspect most listeners go through the Alwyn and remain largely unconscious of the program. Seeing how the composer supplied music to mirror the emotion of the text may interest some, but that particular pleasure lies on the periphery. The fifth differs from the second in several ways, despite both's insistent monothematicism. The symphony takes the idea through a more classically-oriented structure: an opening allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a dead-march finale. But it mainly differs in the speed at which we progress through each "movement." Indeed, for me, the symphony ends hardly after it's begun. The second, though motifically as thorough, nevertheless takes bigger breaths and allows itself some sort of relaxation. The fifth grabs you by the lapels and hurls you headlong. The proportions are also a bit weird, with about forty percent of the music going to the finale, kicked off by the motif on tubular bells. The heart of the symphony beats here. It also applies the rhetorical brakes. Here, we have the luxury of taking our time, relatively speaking, but also here the motif sounds most obsessively. Nevertheless, we don't tire of it, due entirely to Alwyn's mastery of symphonic rhetoric.

Harp concertos fascinate me, because of the difficulty of writing convincing modern music for the instrument. The harp, one of the oldest instruments known to us, hasn't really changed in thousands of years. Despite the addition of a complicated mechanism that allowed for some chromatic notes (the black keys on the piano in the key of C) through some fancy footwork on the part of the harpist, the instrument remains essentially modal. It is, as far as I know, impossible to make a harp chord with more than three adjacent half-steps. A chromatic scale, at any reasonable speed, requires a virtuoso with fleet feet. Among those composers who have licked the problems the instrument presents are Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Britten, Krenek, Hovhaness, and the relatively obscure Aaron Rabushka, who turned out a beauty at not quite twenty years old. For most composers, the harp remains a color, rather than an equal-opportunity instrument among the orchestral set.

Alwyn's concerto, Lyra Angelica, comes from 1954. Literature also provided the initial inspiration – in this case, the Metaphysical poetry of Giles Fletcher. As in the fifth symphony, quotations head each movement, but in the concerto they seem more necessary, mainly because most of the music itself is so low-key. The passionate mysticism of the Metaphysicals informs the work. This isn't the dramatic mysticism of Donne, but the inwardness of Herbert and Marvell. In four movements, the music is, in Vaughan Williams' phrase, "mostly slow." The scoring of solo harp against strings brings up affinities with the English Pastoralism of thirty and even forty years before. A work like this needs a master rhetorician to hold a listener's interest, and Alwyn delivers. The music never bogs down. Alwyn knows how to keep things moving. Still, it's not a concerto that roars or storms and thus may not appeal to those who like their concertos heroic. My favorite movements are the first and last. The last, compared to the others, bursts in an overflow of joy, "Allegro giubiloso," and is probably the easiest to love. The first, however, risks more, skittering on the edge of stasis and moving just when it must. It ends with an exquisite section in gentle triple-time.

The performances here, Lloyd-Jones conducting and Suzanne Willison taking solo honors, are fully as wonderful as the composer's own on Lyrita. The composer had soloist Ossian Ellis, but to me Willison plays at the same level. Lloyd-Jones has always been one of the most intelligent conductors around, capable of rousing an orchestra to real fire. The symphonies in particular make their powerful point, and the concerto doesn't get buried in excessive modesty. In all, a bargain at any price, especially the Naxos one. I hope this signals the label's Alwyn cycle.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz