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CLASSICAL  December 2005

CLASSICAL December 2005

Subject:

Alwyn Piano Concerti

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Fri, 2 Dec 2005 14:32:23 -0600

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     William Alwyn

* Piano Concerto No. 1 (1930)
* Derby Day Overture (1960)
* Piano Concerto No. 2 (1960)
* Sonata alla toccata (1947)

Peter Donohoe (piano),
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
Naxos 8.557590 Total time: 59:35

Summary for the Busy Executive: Solid, even inspiring music, brilliantly
played.

British composer William Alwyn, born in 1905, didn't really begin to
make his mark as a writer until right around World War II.  Before then,
he produced many scores which he later essentially disowned.  In the
first piano concerto, we get the rare opportunity to hear one of them.

Often, however, the blemishes of a work announce themselves more
stridently to the composer than to the listener.  Tchaikovsky, in many
ways his harshest critic, considered his Nutcracker ballet a failure,
and damned if I know why.  Similarly, I can say of Alwyn's first piano
concerto only that it differs from his characteristic mature works, but
not necessarily in overall quality.  Mainly, I miss Alwyn's characteristic
weight of sound, ambitious gravitas, and formal richness.  It contains,
however, plenty of attractive, arresting ideas.  After all, a critic can
easily fall into the trap set by The Well-Written Piece -- that is, a
work of blameless formal and contrapuntal craft, which nevertheless has
nothing interesting to say: sort of like reading a sonnet on how to brush
your teeth.

The early score is really more Konzertstueck than concerto.  In one
middle-size movement, it contains four brief sections.  Its novelty,
however, consists in the fact that, unlike the Saint-Saens concerti,
for example, it doesn't try to mimic the multi-movement structure of
a "regular" concerto.  In other words, Alwyn's sections don't really
correspond to sonata-allegro, slow movement, scherzo, and finale.  It
falls somewhere between a large symphonic movement and a fantasia.  The
musical idiom as well differs from what we have come to expect from
Alwyn.  It derives far more from folks like Hindemith and the neoclassic
Vaughan Williams than is Alwyn's wont.  Indeed, it comes across to the
listener more like a young composer trying out styles and masks to see
what fits.

Seventeen years later, Alwyn's Sonata alla toccata strikes me as a
British counterpoint to something like the first piano sonata of Harold
Shapero, although less influenced by Stravinsky's surface mannerisms.
It's the kind of thing that will never be popular with pianists, mostly
because it puts wit and conviviality before stagy heroism.  Although
Alwyn requires some flash (the alla toccata part), he makes no attempt
to overwhelm you.  He wants to charm.  The sonata says what it has to
say and then modestly takes its leave.  In the meantime, one encounters
first-rate ideas and a true lyricism -- by which I mean something that
doesn't rely either on easy padding or on the ideas of somebody else.
Every note tells.

The vigorous Derby Day Overture, inspired by the Frith painting of the
same name, portrays the bustle of a crowd. The liner notes talk about
Alwyn's adaptation of "twelve-tone technique" to tonality, but this
is rot, in my opinion.  Even though Alwyn became briefly interested
in dodecaphony in the Sixties (the String Trio), this overture is no
more "twelve-tone" than Richard Strauss's Eulenspiegel or Paul Dukas's
Sorcerer's Apprentice, whose energy shows up in this score.  I have yet
to understand why using "twelve-tone" as anything other than a technical
description either distinguishes or condemns a work. I wish writers,
essentially hostile to dodecaphony, would knock off trying to show their
boys "with it" nevertheless, in their own special way, of course.  Light
music at its best -- light the way Mozart's Figaro overture is light --
Derby Day needs no special pleading.

The second piano concerto counts as the big work (in every sense) on
the program.  It was never performed during the composer's lifetime,
and shame on English musicians and impresarios for this.  It shows that
the modesty of the sonata was Alwyn's choice rather than his necessity.
Indeed, the concerto's finale runs longer than the entire piano sonata.
It's big, like the Rachmaninoffs (as reviewers have pointed out), but
also like the Vaughan Williams, as well as the little-known piano
concertino of Arthur Benjamin.  The gestures refer to the heroic Romantic
concerto tradition, but one also finds a formal as well as an emotional
richness, the full concerto counterpart of Alwyn's first four symphonies.
Alwyn takes big breaths and strides, but does so while keeping a steely
grip on the development of his argument.  The first movement storms,
with a central passage of sunlight breaking through (the "big tune,"
with its main strain slightly reminiscent of a couple of measures in
Ravel's G-major concerto).  For 1960, dominated by Darmstadt and the
"kleine Webernskis," this is a pretty daring concerto, and the fact that
Alwyn got a performance even scheduled (it was cancelled when the pianist
came down with a case of paralysis in his arm and never put back on the
bill) speaks volumes about the work's quality.  Of course, the critical
climate of the time would most likely have dismissed it, but you can't
have everything.  In an attempt to get another performance, Alwyn cut
the original second movement, substituting an orchestral "transition"
from first movement to last -- fairly easy, since the first movement
sort of blurred into the second anyway.  This, however, was a mistake,
according to the composer's widow, and an unsuccessful gambit in any
case, since it didn't secure a performance.  We get here the original
second movement, a bit like Medtner or, yes, Rachmaninoff, mainly in the
kind of finger-work it demands from the soloist.  This isn't all Romantic
melancholy yearning and calm reflection.  There are plenty of surprising
outbursts -- sometimes manic, sometimes stormy -- all flowing naturally
together.  Nothing points more strongly than this to Alwyn's mastery of
symphonic rhetoric, as well as to an adult sensibility.  This isn't some
teenager mooning about.  The movement ends with an emotionally ambiguous
chorale.

The finale, toccata-like, nods its head to the virtuoso display of the
Romantic concerto (think of the Brahms first piano concerto), but like
the Brahms first it's not just that.  There's a titanic anger in it,
a tremendous rhythmic drive with elemental "jazzy" syncopations.  The
furious opening leads to a broad middle section (another "big tune,"
which relates to ideas in the first movement), but this seems like a
gathering of breath, a temporary relaxation, before the fury returns.
There's a coda of sorts, in which themes from previous movements return,
but in new guises, and the concerto ends in a brief, nova-like burst.

The performers -- Donohoe, Judd, and Bournemouth -- play like they mean
it.  It's a terrific set of readings, with no concession to sound quality,
and it's on Naxos.  What more could you want?

Steve Schwartz

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