on 15 January 2002
At the heart of Alwyn's music lie his five symphonies. With one slight exception they have no explicit extra musical associations. In this sense they are unlike the music of say Tchaikovsky; but they are closely linked to the emotions and in this respect they are unlike say Beethoven or, in our own time, Robert Simpson. Perhaps in this respect they are most like Brahms. Hubert Parry, too, springs to mind, as both he and Alwyn were conservative in their own time but both extraordinarily skilled in evoking their own symphonic worlds. At the end of the first and third symphonies Alwyn even sounds like Parry and Brahms, with one of those wonderful 'sunset' type passages.
The symphonies span the years 1950 to 1973. The first four were conceived together as a kind of cycle, making the fifth one on its own chronologically - it is also by far the shortest at sixteen minutes. But the greatest musical gap lies between the first and the rest.
The first is a charming work, with echoes of Walton and Vaughan Williams and, not least, of Alwyn's own film scores. There is a moment in the trio where one can imagine Dirk Bogarde strolling in the south of France with a woman on his arm - all in Black and White and all in very British good taste!
But from the second symphony onwards Alwyn is tougher and even more rewarding. The opening of the second on bassoons alone is not so bizarre as that of the Rite of Spring, but it has the same exotic feel which pervades the whole work. There are moments of anguish and intense emotion culminating in a big tune worthy of Sibelius.
The third symphony was described by John Ireland in 1956 as 'the finest British Symphony since the Elgar no 2' and since that includes Walton's first and Vaughan William's fourth, fifth and sixth, this is a very strong claim. It may be contentious but it is by no means foolish. This work has an amazing drive and energy. It is pervaded by rising three note figure, an inversion of that to be found in the first movement of Brahms' first. There is a struggle but there is also a determination to win. Alwyn makes use of all the power of the full orchestra in the outer movements. In the slow movement, however, he uses the instruments much more sparingly, most notably his own instrument, the flute, in passages of great delicacy, poignancy and beauty.
The fourth contains much anguish and tragedy in the outer movements sandwiching a sherzo of extraordinary energy and rumbustuousness. This is a deeply moving work
The fifth symphony takes its inspiration from a poem by Sir Thomas Browne but is perfectly capable of standing alone.
I cannot understand why these works are so little known. Their tonal idiom makes them perfectly accessible to anyone with a liking for twentieth century symphonies but there is no lack of depth to challenge and reward. There is more to Alwyn than, say, George Lloyd, without his being quite as stern and unyielding as Robert Simpson. I urge any reader of this review to listen to these recordings.
Alwyn had the misfortune of writing these works at a time when 'traditional' values of composition had been replaced by other attractions of an avant garde nature. This was reflected in the choice of music promoted by the broadcasters and this resulted in these fine works not being heard either sufficiently or fairly.
Alwyn was a prolific writer of film scores, with over 60 to his name, as well as being a composition professor at the Royal Academy of Music. The considerable success of his film music provided the financial security required to support his symphonic output. His music is tightly argued and lyrical. There are no major melodies such as are found in Rachmaninov or Elgar for example but instead there is an emphasis on motifs which are worked through lyrically such as in Beethoven for example The music is also extremely effective dramatically having an inbuilt epic quality about it. The orchestration shows considerable flair for colour and this works seamlessly with his compositional skills. All of these qualities are to be expected of a successful film score writer where there is no room for slackness of any variety and where every idea must work effectively.
The first four symphonies were conceived as a compositional group and written close together in the 1950's. This grouping has little bearing on the listener who can simply enjoy the music of each symphony on an individual basis. The grouping is more to do with the way in which they were written. They thus form a 4 movement group with the first symphony being the exposition, the second being the slow movement, the third being a march-scherzo and the fourth being the epilogue. However each of these symphonies has its own range of movements so linking the 4 symphonies as a listener might be more distracting than useful. Alwyn himself stressed that each symphony had to be 'a satisfactory entity in itself.'
The fifth symphony (1973) is shorter, more concentrated and does have a theme as can be deduced from the title 'Hydriotaphia' relating to Sir Thomas Browne's (1605-82) elegy on urn burial. Sibelius' 'Tapiola' would be a good point of comparison here as there are those who see that symphonic poem as tightly symphonic in structure, even more than the 7th symphony. Alwyn's 5th symphony could therefore almost be seen as his equivalent Tapiola.
The Sinfonietta is a serious composition which reflects Alwyn's admiration for Berg's music, in particular for the opera 'Lulu' which is alluded to in the course of the working out of the musical ideas. It is a fairly tough piece to follow, particularly in the densely worked outside two movements although the central movement gives considerable lyrical relief. The title 'Sinfonietta' suggests something of a lighter nature than a symphony but this is definitely not the case here where it is arguable that this is the toughest challenge to the listener in the box set. Alwyn himself remarked that it could easily have been titles as the fifth symphony.
All of these works are extremely well directed by Hickox who is rather more flamboyant in his interpretations than Alwyn in his own fine recordings on Lyrita from the 1970's. The LSO is on spectacular form and the whole is given one of Chandos' well known high quality recordings. This is dynamically wide ranging, well-balanced and sonically faithful.
I would suggest that this fine set should be given serious consideration by anyone interested in the program. Rather like Britten and Arnold, Alwyn was also a fine conductor of his own compositions so the set he made for Lyrita in the 1970's and still sounding well should also be considered seriously. I would suggest that collectors would be best advised to own both as they are more complementary rather than competitive.