The music of William Alwyn generally doesn't leap out at the listener, challenging him or cajoling him into giving it his immediate attention. For me, anyway, his music has been an acquired taste, but the effort has been worth it. This worthwhile collection of shorter orchestral works, composed over the span of 27 years, is bound to contain at least something that will hook those who admire the music of Vaughan Williams and Walton (for example). From that initial "hook," I predict that listeners will go on to enjoy everything else on this CD just as much, after repeated listening.
Alwyn was born in 1905 in Northampton, England. The flute was his instrument, and it is what brought him to the Royal Academy of Music when he was only 15. He also studied composition, and was such an apt student that by the time he was 21, he was a professor of composition there. He held the post until 1955. He composed extensively for films, and there are five symphonies and several concertos, including a popular one for harp, perhaps better known as Lyra Angelica.
For a while, the Lyrita and Chandos labels had a virtual monopoly on Alwyn's music; it is good to see Naxos offering more budget-friendly alternatives, and the recordings are very good. This CD even includes a world première recording: the aphoristic Five Preludes from 1927 have not been recorded until now. (The longest of them is not even two minutes long.)
The two works with prominent solo parts might be the best places to start. The Pastoral Fantasia contains lovely writing for the viola, here sensitively played by Philip Dukes. Written on the brink of World War Two, the Pastoral Fantasia is in the tradition of the many compositions that seem to loll in the beauty of the English countryside. The Autumn Legend (1954) features the English horn singing out over a string orchestra. Alwyn stated that it was a tribute to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose paintings have appeared on the covers of several of Naxos' Alwyn discs. Rachael Pankhurst's English horn sings eloquently.
The Tragic Interlude (1936) begins stormily, and quickly evolves into an intense elegy for strings. Overture to a Masque (1940) whets the appetite with its clean lines and airy textures, and the Concerto grosso #1 from three years later is similarly economical, as well as emotionally direct. The CD ends with the Suite of Scottish Dances from 1946. Based on actual Scottish tunes, this is a suite of which Malcolm Arnold would have been proud.
David Lloyd-Jones is one of the most dependable conductors of British music at work today, although the word "dependable" suggests too modest a level of achievement. So instead, let me say that these performances are beautifully played by the Liverpudlian orchestra, and that Lloyd-Jones has the repertory well in hand and makes a very persuasive case for it. Recorded in Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, the CD also features outstanding sound (perhaps the solo instruments have been spotlighted a little too much), and the booklet notes are helpful, adding to one's enjoyment. A strong recommendation, then.
Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle