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CLASSICAL  November 2005

CLASSICAL November 2005

Subject:

Alwyn on Naxos

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 21 Nov 2005 10:00:20 -0600

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      William Alwyn

*  Symphony No. 5 "Hydriotaphia"
*  Concerto for Harp "Lyra Angelica"
*  Symphony No. 2

Suzanne Willison (harp),
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.557647  Total time: 69:52

Summary for the Busy Executive: All-winners.

William Alwyn suffered from an embarrassment of talent.  Not only did
he compose a substantial body of music, conduct, and play the flute at
a professional level, he became a creditable painter and a well-respected
poet and translator from French.  I say "suffered" because I wonder how
much his range of activity obscured the reception of his music.  Essentially,
the LP, specifically from the Lyrita label (of blessed memory), built
Alwyn's reputation, at least beyond Britain.

Alwyn belonged to what I call the "Walton wing" of British music: tightly symphonic, modern in idiom, though not pointedly avant-garde, and with a deep Romantic undercurrent.  Unlike Vaughan Williams, there's little connection to folk music or Ravel.  Unlike Britten, there's little connection to Mahler or Stravinsky.  Most of Alwyn's mature works take from something like Walton's first symphony -- incredibly influential among Britain's so-called "lost generation" of composers, essentially those writers who started around World War II and got obscured in the rise of postwar serialism and aleatorics.  I've heard many decry the circumstances, but although I admit that some wonderful music went ignored, I also believe that the attention brought much wonderful music to light.  Contrary to the opinions of some, the rise of post-Webernian serialism and the avant-garde after World War II didn't stem from a cabal of pedants out to destroy the True and the Beautiful.  Instead, it came
  from a perception of creative impasse -- that the old ways of doing things seemed played out (it wasn't true, of course, but that's how it felt), that the very sounds of music had become predictable and consequently tired.  Serious listeners and composers wanted to explore something new.  Of course, the revolution itself grew predictable.  The then-avant-garde created its own set of cliches, and music changed again.  Tonality came back, although it wasn't quite the tonality that composers had given up.  Indeed, the intervening years had altered how composers thought of tonality.  Alwyn himself felt the influence of serialism, indeed surrendering to it in at least one masterpiece -- his string trio -- but he was also a fully-formed composer.  He didn't lose his voice when he sang a new song.  At any rate, all the works here are quite tonal, very Romantic, very Waltonian.

I recall reading somewhere that Alwyn conceived of his first four
symphonies at one go: that is, he found in one stroke four different
paths to the problem of writing a symphony.  The second symphony, formally
cast in two large movements, plays with two initial motifs, a falling
major third with a scalar rise back to the initial note and an insistent
rhythm on one note.  Alwyn varies this ingeniously.  For instance, what
I call "the second subject" -- not really that, since Alwyn doesn't base
his symphony on classical sonata-allegro -- is really a combination of
a chromatic falling third and a rise from the initial note.  He combines
this with the one-note ostinato.  Rhetorically, the movement begins in
worry, but becomes increasingly purposeful, until wild fanfares call
out, about midway through.  This breaks apart into more worry, which
builds into a slow, solemn march, which also rises to a peak and breaks.
A lament, marked "molto calmato" and dominated by solo cello, fills out
most of the rest, and the movement ends with bare statements of the
"second subject." The second movement begins with a scherzo whose opening
outcry reminds me of the one in the Vaughan Williams fourth.  It too
plays up the one-note ostinato and fools around with the major-third
idea, sometimes sounding it backwards, sometimes upside-down.  After a
few builds and falls, the scherzo gives way to a gorgeous, lush melody
of a kind normally associated with Rachmaninoff.  Still, it all comes
from the falling third and the ostinato.  The passion subsides into a
valediction (molto tranquillo), and the symphony ends quietly, with the
winds, brass, and strings each having their say with the major motif,
and finally waves goodbye with soft brass in a chordal statement of the
motif above the quiet pizzicato of the low strings outlining the same
idea.  This powerful assured symphony, only his second, nevertheless
confused critics who, with the example of Vaughan Williams before them,
should have known better.  Because of its poor reception, it became
Alwyn's own favorite -- like parents who among their children favor the
schlimazel.

The fifth symphony comes from the early Seventies, almost fifteen years
after the fourth, so it stands a bit apart from the others.  Inspired
by the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, the fifth - taut and compact - not
only runs to one movement (several sections, of course), also every theme
derives from a chromatic alarum motif at the very beginning.  Indeed,
the composer works in a slightly more dissonant idiom than listeners
who've heard an Alwyn piece before may expect.  Still, if you like
Shostakovich, Alwyn's language should pose no problems.  Despite the
initial inspiration and, indeed, quotations from Hydriotaphia heading
the various large sections, the symphony works just fine without a
program.  Certainly the program counts for less in Alwyn than it does
in, say, Strauss's Eulenspiegel -- the latter a dramatic program, the
former more abstract.  Indeed, I suspect most listeners go through the
Alwyn and remain largely unconscious of the program.  Seeing how the
composer supplied music to mirror the emotion of the text may interest
some, but that particular pleasure lies on the periphery.  The fifth
differs from the second in several ways, despite both's insistent
monothematicism.  The symphony takes the idea through a more
classically-oriented structure: an opening allegro, a slow movement, a
scherzo, and a dead-march finale.  But it mainly differs in the speed
at which we progress through each "movement." Indeed, for me, the symphony
ends hardly after it's begun.  The second, though motifically as thorough,
nevertheless takes bigger breaths and allows itself some sort of relaxation.
The fifth grabs you by the lapels and hurls you headlong.  The proportions
are also a bit weird, with about forty percent of the music going to the
finale, kicked off by the motif on tubular bells.  The heart of the
symphony beats here.  It also applies the rhetorical brakes.  Here, we
have the luxury of taking our time, relatively speaking, but also here
the motif sounds most obsessively.  Nevertheless, we don't tire of it,
due entirely to Alwyn's mastery of symphonic rhetoric.

Harp concertos fascinate me, because of the difficulty of writing
convincing modern music for the instrument.  The harp, one of the oldest
instruments known to us, hasn't really changed in thousands of years.
Despite the addition of a complicated mechanism that allowed for some
chromatic notes (the black keys on the piano in the key of C) through
some fancy footwork on the part of the harpist, the instrument remains
essentially modal.  It is, as far as I know, impossible to make a harp
chord with more than three adjacent half-steps.  A chromatic scale, at
any reasonable speed, requires a virtuoso with fleet feet.  Among those
composers who have licked the problems the instrument presents are
Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Britten, Krenek, Hovhaness, and the relatively
obscure Aaron Rabushka, who turned out a beauty at not quite twenty years
old.  For most composers, the harp remains a color, rather than an
equal-opportunity instrument among the orchestral set.

Alwyn's concerto, Lyra Angelica, comes from 1954.  Literature also
provided the initial inspiration -- in this case, the Metaphysical
poetry of Giles Fletcher.  As in the fifth symphony, quotations head
each movement, but in the concerto they seem more necessary, mainly
because most of the music itself is so low-key.  The passionate mysticism
of the Metaphysicals informs the work.  This isn't the dramatic mysticism
of Donne, but the inwardness of Herbert and Marvell.  In four movements,
the music is, in Vaughan Williams's phrase, "mostly slow." The scoring
of solo harp against strings brings up affinities with the English
Pastoralism of thirty and even forty years before.  A work like this
needs a master rhetorician to hold a listener's interest, and Alwyn
delivers.  The music never bogs down.  Alwyn knows how to keep things
moving.  Still, it's not a concerto that roars or storms and thus may
not appeal to those who like their concertos heroic.  My favorite movements
are the first and last.  The last, compared to the others, bursts in an
overflow of joy, "Allegro giubiloso," and is probably the easiest to
love.  The first, however, risks more, skittering on the edge of stasis
and moving just when it must.  It ends with an exquisite section in
gentle triple-time.

The performances here, Lloyd-Jones conducting and Suzanne Willison
taking solo honors, are fully as wonderful as the composer's own on
Lyrita.  The composer had soloist Ossian Ellis, but to me Willison plays
at the same level.  Lloyd-Jones has always been one of the most intelligent
conductors around, capable of rousing an orchestra to real fire.  The
symphonies in particular make their powerful point, and the concerto
doesn't get buried in excessive modesty.  In all, a bargain at any price,
especially the Naxos one.  I hope this signals the label's Alwyn cycle.

Steve Schwartz

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