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William Alwyn: Symphony No. 4; Sinfonietta CD
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We should be grateful that these orchestral works show another facet to this composer, who is now best known for his film music.What has been revealed is a set of symphonies which manage to combine the highest degree of musical craftsmanship with an imediacy of idiom which should-if they are allowed an outing-prove popular with audiences and performers alike.
Like Shostakovich, Alwyn had a strong dramatic sense, possibly honed in his film scores. Whilst there is a pronounced English timbre to the fourth Symphony, the template, to these ears at least, appears to be Sibelius.The scope and shape of the work have a rugged scandinavian feel and the brass chords at the very ending of the piece make the parallel more specific, reminiscent of the Finnish composer's Fifth symphony. [Alwyn would not be alone amongst English composers to have seen their way to symphonic writing via Sibelius].
My response to a symphony is shaped by 1/ Does it have a logical progression/journey? and 2/Does it stand up to repeated listening? The answer must be yes to both questions.
The sinfonietta is somewhat more astringent- I found myself thinking, in places of Herrman's score to Psycho- yet Alwyn handles the string orchestra with aplomb, and once again the music is compelling, if not exactly 'comfortable'[Why should it be, inspired as it is by a fragment iof Berg's 'Lulu'?].
This release is a suitable climax to the cycle, and the other CDs can also be warmly recommended: it just misses the fifth star by a fraction!
I ignored the Sinfonietta for years (it was on Side B of the Second Symphony on Lyrita). What a mistake! The writing for the string orchestra is of the absolute top quality.
Just STOP whatever you are doing, sit down and LISTEN. The sounds hang by a thread so delicate you think it can't maintain momentum - but it does. And overall there is that little hidden dying phrase which sounds just like "I love you".
Exquisite. Exquisite. Don't leave this life without hearing it.
The best of his symphonies. I have heard a lot of British symphonies from the minor British composers [apart from Tippett and Vaughan Williams] but this is one of the best.
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Alwyn's duplicitous artistic life may explain part of the dilution of his efforts in each. His career as a painter seems more of a pastime than that of a committed artist, though his oil paintings of the British Isles are full of fine composition and technique. They speak big ideas - and so did his symphonies. While he enjoyed enormous success financially from his 200-odd film scores, his 'serious works' lack staying power, primarily because of the lack of a champion for his work.
Symphony No. 4 is his most often performed work and it is a craggy, brassy, 'barbarically splendid' work - massive in scale but at the same time able to pull back into the elegiac sections and create some heart rending melodies. There is an element of Gustav Holst and a bit of Vaughan Williams here, but Alwyn maintains his own 'sound' despite the quotes.
The treasure of this particular recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of David Lloyd-Jones is the inclusion of the 'Sinfonietta for String Orchestra'. Here Alwyn steps aside from his boisterous big works and offers a work of true beauty. The movements remind this listener of Samuel Barber's infamous 'Adagio', of the 'Nimrod' variation of Elgar's 'Enigma Variations' and of the quality of pastorale in Vaughan Williams 'Flos Campi'. This is melody from the heart worn rightfully on the sleeve, and for those of us who love basking in such wonder this piece is worth the purchase of the CD. It makes one wonder just how much more is hidden in this rarely performed composer's genre! Grady Harp, May 06
His music is filled with incident and drama, and in that sense, it seems fair to catagorize him as a romantic; but this is not to say that his musical language was in any way backward looking. His harmonic language is tonal, but of its time; he fits neatly among those composers such as Barber, Diamond, Honegger and Rubbra who avoided the 12-tone/atonality trap. A revival of his music in the concert hall would be welcome.
He is not, however, this listener's consistent favorite among his peers. And this is not the release that would be my first recommendation for those who haven't heard his music. Instead, I would look for Naxos' release of this 2nd and 5th symphonies, with the very lovely Lyra Angelica Concerto for Harp and String Orchestra, which has been very favorably reviewed here and elsewhere.
The 4th Symphony is certainly a high quality effort, and several of my music-listening friends relate with gusto to its dramatic fanfares and its long, aggressive scherzo middle movement. I have a preference for somewhat more reflective repertoire, but I don't hesitate to call this a thrilling performance of an effective piece. The Sinfonietta for Strings, which occupies the remainder of the disc, is more my style, although it is dynamic and dramatic as well, but within the confines of a string orchestra.
The performances and sound are first rate.