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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony No. 4 (1959) [32:13]
Sinfonietta for Strings (1970) [22:51]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 2-4 Aug 2004, 4 Jan 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557649 [55:04]

Naxos reach the conclusion of their Alwyn symphony cycle in fine style with the three-movement Fourth Symphony and the shorter, pithier Sinfonietta, which is also in three movements. Once again, competition, and strong competition at that, comes from the composer himself in recordings that he made for Lyrita in the 1970s.

I recently reviewed the Naxos pairing of the First and Third symphonies, fine works both, and the general points of comparison that I noted then as between the Lyrita releases and the Naxos newcomer apply here also. In summary, the composer tends to be a bit more expansive than David Lloyd-Jones, taking 35:14 for this symphony against Lloyd-Jones’ 32:13. Alwyn is better served by the Lyrita engineers and has an even better orchestra at his disposal, the London Philharmonic tending to have the edge over the excellent RLPO, especially in terms of richness of tone. However, the RLPO still give extremely good accounts of these works, as was the case on the other disc that I reviewed, and, as we shall see, the expansiveness factor isn’t by any means completely in the composer’s favour. Indeed, many will relish the crispness and general thrusting approach of David Lloyd-Jones.

A fairly common thread running through the first four Alwyn symphonies is an association with Sir John Barbirolli. This is maintained in the Fourth, of which he gave the first performance. The music in all four works often seems tailor-made for JB and that’s certainly the case here. The Fourth is a very fine symphony indeed and Alwyn displays his usual affinity in writing for a full orchestra – the scoring is consistently a delight to the ear and often very resplendent. One recalls that the composer was himself a professional orchestral flautist for many years and so, like Malcolm Arnold, knew the modern symphony orchestra from the inside. Alwyn is assured in handling the orchestra and it seems to me that he’s equally assured in his handling of musical material. Furthermore the material is often distinguished and memorable.

Near the start of the first movement of the Fourth, for example, we hear a fine, yearning theme on strings and horns, which makes an immediate and very positive impact on the listener. Once the opening maestoso has run its course a busy and bustling allegro takes centre-stage and here we get ample evidence of another prominent Alwyn trait, namely rhythmic drive. . Eventually the pace slows once more and after a powerful passage the subdued mood in which the movement began is reasserted.

The central scherzo is the pivotal movement in the work. It begins with relentless rhythms, and a motif that sounds like a descending peal of bells is well to the fore. The trio is slower and often more spare in texture. When the breathless scherzo material returns one might think we’re in for a conventional ABA form, but we’re not. Alwyn cleverly varies his material so that it’s anything but a straightforward repeat, teasing the listener’s ear to spot the differences second time around. In all, it’s an excellent movement, which generates genuine excitement. After this the finale opens in a much-needed mood of calmness. There’s a really lovely theme on violins, supported by the rest of the strings. At length this is passed to other sections of the orchestra, most notably to a solo flute. It’s very romantic stuff, with more than a whiff of nostalgia at times. However, the music never wallows for an instant; Alwyn is not a self-indulgent composer. The intensity of the music builds very naturally and with the sense of inevitability that marks out a fine symphonist. There’s a passing reminiscence of the scherzo before a conclusion of some grandeur. I find the ardent lyricism of this movement very satisfying and not a little moving.

Comparing Lloyd-Jones’ performance with that of the composer I find that there’s very little to choose between them in the first movement. The scherzo is where I think Alwyn has a clear edge. He gets playing of real bite from the LPO, whose horns – so often such an important element of Alwyn’s scoring – are quite superb. Indeed the LPO brass as a whole offer playing that is often thrilling. Their woodwind colleagues are also a bit crisper in their delivery than I hear in the Liverpool account. In the finale Alwyn draws out the opening melody even more luxuriantly than does the eloquent Lloyd-Jones and he’s very spacious in the last few minutes of the piece, when his performance is very ripe and full. However, some listeners may well prefer the greater element of urgency in the Naxos version and though I think that the Alwyn reading has more presence – in both musical and sonic terms – the Lloyd-Jones version is very impressive indeed. Frankly, I’m happy to have both versions of this fine symphony in my collection.

The Sinfonietta is a much later work and I find it rather more astringent in its harmonic language, certainly in the outer movements. Once again we find Alwyn taking quite a bit longer than Lloyd-Jones. In this case his version plays for 26:24 whereas Lloyd-Jones, without sacrificing any lyrical generosity, only takes 22:51. Listeners will notice one big difference, I think, between the two performances on the Naxos disc. The recordings were made at different times and to my ears the recorded sound in the Sinfonietta is closer – though not unpleasantly so by any means – and more rich and full than is the case for the symphony. The two works were recorded by different technical teams, which may well have something to do with it. Another factor may be that, with only a string section to balance, the engineers felt comfortable in placing the microphones closer to the players. Whatever the reasons, while the sound for the symphony is very good I prefer the sound accorded the Sinfonietta. Indeed, this recording is, in sonic terms, much more of a challenge to the Lyrita productions than anything else we’ve heard in this Naxos series.

Coincidentally, just as in the symphony, in this work too there’s little appreciable difference between the two conductors in the first of the three movements. In this movement vigorous passages alternate with more reflective sections. Of particular note is a haunting violin solo near the end. The slow movement is a very lovely creation, in which we hear music of rich, warm simplicity from start to finish. It’s beautifully played here. Lloyd-Jones and his players display real concentration and generate a fine ambience. Alwyn and the LPO give us a performance that’s deeply felt too but its appreciably longer – Alwyn takes 7:19, Lloyd-Jones, without ever sounding rushed, a "mere" 5:42. Such is the finesse and tonal depth of the LPO strings that they’re easily able to sustain this expansive tempo but I wonder if it isn’t Lloyd-Jones who serves the music best through imparting just a bit more forward momentum.

The finale has a brief, whirlwind opening before what is to become a complex fugue begins quietly. Alwyn works out this fugue at some length before the work achieves a short, radiant coda. Alwyn himself takes a whole two minutes longer over this movement – Lloyd-Jones is just short of nine minutes – and I wonder if he’s a bit too deliberate in his pacing. Throughout the five symphonies I’ve felt a marginal – but only marginal – preference for the composer’s readings, but here in the Sinfonietta the situation is reversed and I prefer Lloyd-Jones. But, as in the symphonies, it’s a marginal decision and a preference for one conductor over the other most certainly does not imply that one performance is "better". I find that in all the works where I’ve been able to compare them both Alwyn and Lloyd-Jones present convincing and satisfying readings and, frankly, the listener is spoilt for choice.

It’s been a stimulating experience to return to these five fine symphonies and to have the opportunity to compare the composer’s undoubtedly authentic views on the scores with the equally valid and committed thoughts of another interpreter. Above all, I come away from these recordings with a feeling of frustration and, candidly, anger that these eloquent and well-wrought works are almost completely absent from our concert halls and the airwaves. That’s a cause for shame on the part of concert promoters and broadcasters. However, the three companies who have given us distinguished recordings of the complete Alwyn symphonies – I do not forget Chandos – deserve sincere thanks for their enterprise.

The Naxos series is particularly to be commended since the bargain price and the long marketing reach of the label should bring Alwyn’s music to its widest audience to date. As is so often the case with this label the only thing "cheap" about this CD is the price. This is a fine disc and a worthy conclusion to the Naxos Alwyn symphony cycle. I recommend it strongly. Bravo, Naxos and David Lloyd-Jones!

John Quinn

See also reviews by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf

William Alwyn Web-pages



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