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CD Review

William Alwyn

Orchestral Music, Volume 5

  • Elizabethan Dances
  • The Innumerable Dance – An English Overture
  • Concerto for Oboe, Harp & Strings
  • Aphrodite in Aulis
  • Symphonic Prelude, "The Magic Island"
  • Festival March
Jonathan Small, oboe
Eleanor Hudson, harp
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.570144 71:08
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A first crack at some never-before-recorded early Alwyn and fine performances of some Alwyn chestnuts.

When I first heard it, the music of William Alwyn threw me into a kind of funk. It was so well made, I couldn't see how one person, other than Bach and Mozart, could have learned that much. This says nothing about the quality of the musical thought, but about the quality of the musical craft. Alwyn, a polymath, also excelled as a flutist, a poet, a painter, and a translator of French literature, as well as a teacher. Sounds like the boy our parents threw us up to.

However, this disc makes clear that even Alwyn had to work at it. Until recently – and by recently I mean the past twenty years – we heard recordings only of mature work, from about the early Forties on. Naxos' Alwyn series has begun to fill in the gaps as the Alwyn Foundation releases early scores by the composer. As far as I know only two of these scores have had more than one recording, and the program boasts two recorded premières.

The Innumerable Dance, inspired by a passage from Blake's Milton, begins magically, with an incredibly full string sound from not a lot of strings. In a way, it reminds me of Bax's tone poems, with that charge of rapture and awe before Nature. However, Bax, even in his rhapsodic work, keeps a firm grip on his musical materials. Alwyn at this point, the early Thirties, allows things to get away from him, despite wonderful passages. The piece comprises three parts. The first and the most coherent lasts a while. Indeed, Alwyn makes do with one idea for a long time and gets away with it. A quicker section follows, and again the composer husbands his material to great effect. This leads you to expect a certain kind of piece – one which, like sonata-allegro, plays two sets of ideas off one another, leading to some sort of resolution. Instead of resolution, however, Alwyn gives us a third, unrelated section and closes with that. We miss the Q.E.D. of the piece.

Aphrodite in Aulis, an "eclogue for small orchestra" with creative roots in the George Moore novel, also comes from the early Thirties. It's tighter than The Innumerable Dance but also half as long. I appreciate the Alwyn specifies a small orchestra, but the sound he draws from the ensemble strikes me as rather thin, number of players notwithstanding. After all, Brahms gets a pretty full sound from a string sextet.

The oboe concerto from the early Forties, roughly a dozen years later, shows a completely different composer, one who has found himself. Oboe concerti, for some reason, run rather rare on the ground these days. Outside of Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Foss, Milhaud, Martinů, and Alwyn, I can't think of another major composer who wrote one. Alwyn himself came up with a honey. Here, he pulls off the difficult trick of rhapsodic writing within a solid piece of architecture. In some ways, it reminds me of the Vaughan Williams concerto, in that both composers exploit the same qualities – mostly pastoral – in the instrument, but Alwyn got in there slightly ahead.

The first movement begins slow, very gradually building up speed and energy, then sinking back into rhapsody. The second movement – a fast, rustic dance for most of its duration – winds down at the end to a summer somnolence. In other words, the second movement inverts the first. In both cases, the orchestra, though reduced, has a gorgeous almost-lush sound, which provides both a featherbed of support and a dancing partner for the soloist. Yet there's more to this concerto than pastoral prettiness. A current of yearning and melancholy runs deep within it, best heard in the final pages of the first movement. Incidentally, while Alwyn does use a harp, it is always for color within the string ensemble. It certainly doesn't deserve the Big Deal treatment Naxos makes of it, going so far as to name the harpist. It's like naming the harpist in Strauss's Don Quixote (Alice Chalifoux in my favorite recording, by the way).

The Festival March seems, I'm sorry to say, a throwaway, a little too close to Walton's Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre for comfort and without the distinction of Walton's first-rate ideas. It's pretty and makes a bully noise, but nothing more.

The symphonic prelude, The Magic Island, comes from 1952 by way of Shakespeare's Tempest. At this point, Alwyn has established his mastery of symphonic length. My only objection to the work is a niggling one: for me, its atmosphere doesn't correspond to that of the play. It clings to the everyday, rather than to the magical. Of course, if I didn't know Alwyn's inspiration, that atmosphere would make no difference. The movement itself is a kind of magic trick. Most symphony composers tie their music together by manipulating cells or themes. We experience the same ideas either repeat in new contexts or transform. Alwyn doesn't do that here and yet keeps the piece together. Unusually, his accompanying figures glue things together, while the foreground "themes" effloresce in non-repetitive profusion. A wonder of a score.

The Elizabethan Dances of 1956 come out of the British Tudor Revival of the Thirties and Forties. The growing Nazi militarization struck contemporaries with the parallel of the Armada. Even in Hollywood, mainly with British and European writers, one found this vogue for plucky England against the foreign bully and for the glory days of the first Elizabeth with such films as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Sea Hawk. England came through the trial of the war in horrible economic shape, which encouraged more looking back. Elizabeth II's ascension to the throne in 1952 may have seemed like some sort of sign. Vaughan Williams lassoed a herd of collaborators for A Garland for the Queen, a collection of modern madrigals modeled (say that fast three times!) on Morley's Triumphs of Oriana. Britten wrote the Elizabeth-and-Essex opera Gloriana. Alwyn four years later exploited the duality in a subtler way. He composed a suite of six dances – three Renaissance, three "modern" in alternation. The work begins with a vigorous, "barbaric" pipes-and-tabor bransle (from which we get our word "brawl"). A languidly seductive waltz follows. A Morris dance, complete with bells, brings us back to earlier centuries, and we return to the present with a slow dance in which the ghost of Gershwin occasionally peeks out from behind the curtain. A pavane slightly reminiscent of Ravel (though not of the Pavane) comes next, soft and lovely. The finale is a Waltonian riot of triple time and cross-accents. For me, this piece attracts immediately. I've known it since it first appeared on a Lyrita LP with the composer conducting four of the six dances and rearranging them slightly. Why Alwyn cut out the Morris dance and the finale is a mystery, unless the vinyl was running long. At any rate, the work shows that Alwyn the symphonist also wrote attractive, memorable miniatures. The two abilities don't necessarily go together, and they are somewhat antithetical. The symphonist comes up with "open-ended" material, ideas that necessarily lead somewhere else. Miniaturists burn at a higher heat for a briefer time. They haven't the luxury of space in which to build and must make a point quickly, but satisfyingly. The Elizabethan Dances do just that and also give the illusion of symphonic build.

David Lloyd-Jones, a stalwart of Naxos' Alwyn series, turns in his usual splendid job. Compared to Alwyn's own performances (Lyrita SRCD.229), he lacks a little of the composer's "magic" in The Magic Island, although he makes the argument clearer. On the other hand, Lloyd-Jones turns the Elizabethan Dances into something more impressive than what Alwyn makes of them. Lloyd-Jones teases out the lines with greater subtlety, particularly in the waltz and the Gershwinesque dance, giving the pieces greater sophistication. Alwyn gives you the impression that he thinks of these dances solely as miniatures, whereas for Lloyd-Jones, they encapsulate the composer's symphonic art. Neither conductor can save the Festival March.

Copyright © 2008 Steve Schwartz