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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony No. 1 (1949) [38:29]
Symphony No. 3 (1956) [30:21]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 2-4 Aug 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557648 [68:50]

This latest instalment in the Naxos cycle of Alwyn’s symphonies is most impressive.

In both of these symphonies David Lloyd-Jones faces competition from the composer himself, in his Lyrita recordings from the 1970s, and from Richard Hickox’s Chandos cycle, which I have not heard. In the case of the First Symphony there is also now a fascinating disc from Dutton (CDSJB 1029), which couples recordings from the early 1950s of the first two symphonies under Barbirolli. That disc, which is a limited edition, is, I’d suggest, an essential purchase for any admirer of Alwyn’s music

The opportunity to review this Naxos newcomer has prompted me to listen again to the composer’s own recordings. These are only available from Harold Moores and come at full price – and the First and Third are not coupled together. However, it seems to me that the Alwyn recordings enjoy two clear advantages over this newcomer. One is the splendid playing he obtains from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which is even finer and richer than the very good playing offered by the RLPO. The other is that, rather surprisingly, the Lyrita sound, though analogue and some three decades older than the digital Naxos production, is superb and, to my ears at least, superior to the newcomer.

There’s another area in which Alwyn’s own interpretations may or may not score over Lloyd-Jones’s fine readings, depending on your point of view. Time and again in making comparisons I found that Alwyn was that bit more spacious and weighty than Lloyd-Jones and, on balance I preferred the composer’s view; other listeners may well take a different view.

Though I’m always wary of simple comparisons of overall timings, on this occasion they are instructive. Alwyn’s recording of the First symphony takes 41:18 whereas the Lloyd-Jones reading occupies 38:29. Fleeter than both is Barbirolli, whose urgent, white-hot interpretation flashes by in 35:57, the differences between him and Lloyd-Jones being confined mainly to the first and last movements. I think it may be no coincidence that the Barbirolli performance was set down in June 1952, just under two years after the conductor, to whom the work was dedicated, had led the première at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival. With Barbirolli I don’t think it’s too fanciful to suggest that one is hearing the recreation of a very new piece, of which he was beginning the performing tradition. Alwyn, by contrast, recorded the work in about 1977 (Lyrita give no precise recording date), when he would have been in his early seventies and, perhaps more relevantly, had lived with the music, as it were, since he composed it in 1948/9. Lloyd-Jones, arguably, comes to the work completely fresh.

The first movement opens in quiet mystery but swiftly grows in intensity, the music moving imperceptibly into a turbulent, energetic allegro. Northern landscapes and the influence of Sibelius seem to be suggested. There follows a warmly lyrical andante espressivo, led by the strings with the horns in the background. This is most effectively done on the Naxos disc. The music builds to an heroic climax, featuring superb horn parts. The last few minutes, before a quiet conclusion, are very confident and grand; one would hardly guess that this was the composer’s first symphonic utterance. Barbirolli doesn’t match Lloyd-Jones at the start in terms of mystery, probably because his recorded sound is less good. But overall I find JB to be more urgent and thrusting in this movement. The composer is easily the most spacious. In his hands, the afore-mentioned andante espressivo section is beautifully rich. The LPO horns ring out superbly for Alwyn at around 9:00 and there’s a Baxian splendour to the main climax that follows.

The boisterous scherzo fares well in all three recordings. Note the rollicking horn theme, a passage of splendid dash, which all three conductors relish though, inevitably, it’s reported least ardently in the elderly Barbirolli recording. As I say, all three conductors do this movement well. However, the composer adopts a slightly broader tempo and while some may well prefer a quicker pulse in such music I find that he conveys just a touch more bite and definition. The slow movement is essentially an extended song with a short, more urgent central section. Lloyd-Jones is completely convincing here. Indeed, all three conductors convey the warmth and the generous lyrical nature of the music very well.

The finale is boisterous and ebullient. Alwyn described it as "probably the most extrovert piece I have ever written." It’s strongly projected by Lloyd-Jones and the RLPO in a performance that has real verve and drive. Barbirolli almost scampers through the music and I warmed to his extrovert handling of the movement. The composer is certainly not outshone in this company. He’s slightly more deliberate in pacing at the outset but he excels in the last few minutes of the score, which are particularly exciting and uplifting in his hands.

Pressed to sum up the three rival recordings I’d say that Barbirolli gives us the surge of something new. The composer has a bit more gravitas and, of course, authority. Lloyd-Jones sets a very convincing middle course.

When it comes to the Third, which was the first music of Alwyn’s that I ever got to know, when his recording came out on a Lyrita LP, I can only compare the composer and the newcomer, since I haven’t heard Richard Hickox’s version. This symphony contains music that makes an immediate impact. There’s another Barbirolli link here for he was scheduled to conduct the first performance. In the event he was indisposed and Beecham took over. I wonder what Beecham’s performance was like since, to me, it’s not the sort of music that I’d necessarily associate with him. Alwyn described the music as "stormy and passionate". Again, his own reading takes a little longer than the new Lloyd-Jones offering: Alwyn’s traversal lasts 32:49 while the newcomer takes 30:21.

The first of the three movements opens in turbulence. There’s a strong rhythmic impulse to the music, a trait that we shall find characterising much of the score as a whole. Even when the music becomes quieter there’s still great energy. Indeed, I find the passages where the energy is more suppressed are often the most effective. It’s a very powerful movement and Lloyd-Jones handles it most convincingly. Again, the composer has the advantage of splendid analogue sound – quite superb, in fact – and a fine orchestra playing for him with great commitment. He brings a notable degree of weight and bite to the music.

The thematic material of the second movement is fairly simple. At times there’s a definite feeling of menace abroad in the passages where the rhythmic punch is especially pronounced. The last few pages, with the woodwind – especially the cor anglais – gently intoning against a background of strings are quite eerie. Alwyn’s reading is perhaps a shade bleaker than Lloyd-Jones’s at the start, rewardingly so. Later on, the LPO string section has additional richness and weight as compared with their (very good) Liverpool colleagues and I find that this factor is telling.

Drive and energy are once again well to the fore right from the start of the finale. At times, when the music is being propelled onwards against an intense and implacable one-note ostinato underneath, one is reminded of ‘Mars’ from Holst’s Planets, albeit the pulse of Alwyn’s music is appreciably quicker. The Naxos performance has real vigour and Lloyd-Jones does well to sustain this, for although the music does draw breath from time to time these occasions are fleeting and the forward movement soon resumes. From around 7:00 in this performance the music becomes slower and more romantic, though without sacrificing any power. These pages might have been written for Barbirolli – what one would not give for a recording by him to emerge from some archive. At 11:49, just when you think that the symphony is drawing peacefully to a close there’s one last brief eruption to bring the work to a very strong conclusion. In this movement Alwyn’s own tempi tend to be a touch more expansive than those adopted by Lloyd-Jones but his account is no less trenchant than the newcomer and, indeed, the degree of extra weight in his performance brings its own rewards. Alwyn, I think, finds just a little more repose and romantic expressiveness in the extended wind-down towards the end.

I’ve tried to bring out what, for me, are the differences between these different performances. However, even though I may prefer Lloyd-Jones’s rivals in certain respects I should make it clear that he and the RLPO deliver satisfying and wholly convincing readings of both of these fine scores. I would not presume to suggest that Alwyn’s or Barbirolli’s readings are more "definitive" – whatever that might mean. Each conductor offers a slightly different approach. However, I think it’s a measure of the success of each version that I find them convincing while listening to them and, indeed, even when noting the differences in direct comparisons I find that each has its own validity. It’s just appropriate, I think, to draw attention to the choice that’s available. .

That said, for many collectors the choice will be clear cut since the Alwyn and Barbirolli versions may not be quite so easy to get hold of as those on Naxos and, of course, one could acquire the whole Naxos cycle on three CDs for about the same cost of just one of the two Lyrita discs that contain Alwyn’s whole cycle. Happily, however, it’s not a question of mere economics; the Lloyd-Jones performances, both on this CD and on its companion containing the Second and Fifth symphonies, are wholly recommendable, irrespective of price. If you haven’t got any of Alwyn’s symphonies in your collection then I do urge you to sample his music and this CD is an excellent place to start. If you fall under his spell then you’ll certainly want to investigate the composer’s own versions, which have a unique distinction and authority. And the Barbirolli disc should be heard by all admirers either of Alwyn or of Glorious John.

The Naxos documentation is good. However, it contains one glaring and disappointing omission. The short note about the orchestra seems to list virtually every Principal Conductor in the RLPO’s history with the exception of Sir Charles Groves. This is a most unfortunate oversight when one recalls the sterling work that he did on Merseyside and it’s doubly unfortunate when the release is one of English music, of which Sir Charles was such a consistent and doughty champion. I hope Naxos will set this right in future releases featuring Groves’s old orchestra.

A most rewarding issue, which I recommend strongly.

John Quinn

See also reviews by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf

William Alwyn Web-pages



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