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CLASSICAL  May 2006

CLASSICAL May 2006

Subject:

Alwyn's Fourth and the Sinfonietta

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 29 May 2006 04:58:41 -0700

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     William Alwyn

*  Symphony No. 4 (1959)
*  Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (1970)

Royal Liverpool Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones. 
Naxos 8.557649 Total time: 55:04

Summary for the Busy Executive: A good job, but not as extraordinary as
other entries in the series.

Alwyn's fourth symphony was the last of a planned cycle.  Apparently,
four different solutions to symphonic writing came to him at one go, and
this inspired him to embark on the multi-work project.  He also wrote
a fifth symphony, inspired by Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, but it
came much later and connects to the others weakly, if at all.  One idea,
which the composer referred to as a "motto" (although it tends to appear
anywhere in a particular movement), runs through the set, further binding
all four together.

Alwyn sings in a big, neo-Romantic way, sort of an off-shoot of the
Walton First.  His symphonies have the richness of a Dickens novel, a
Shakespearean prodigality of invention given shape by a master of thematic
manipulation.  The bag of basic themes is small -- essentially three for
the entire fourth symphony, although the composer himself speaks of two
groups of three pitches each.  However, the composer's brilliance in
varying them gives the illusion of more entropy than the actual case.
Nevertheless, this kind of microscopic attention to detail and the
deliberately limited thematic resource in hindsight points to the
composer's later brief adaptation of dodecaphonic serialism (essentially
confined to one incredible work, the string trio from the Sixties).  The
orchestral sounds are varied and, in general, sumptuous.  The fourth
symphony constitutes no exception, and indeed the impression of a thematic
flood probably makes itself felt even more strongly than in the other
three.  In my opinion, it's also the most unconventional formally, with
an opening allegro, a scherzo (probably the weightiest movement), and a
slow finale, all around ten minutes long.

In contrast to, say, the typical Mozart or Beethoven counterpart,
the first movement does not present a rhetorically cohesive structure.
Indeed, the mood changes so many times, the argument risks falling apart
entirely.  As far as the "eye" goes, all is fine: the "tunes" all share
a family resemblance.  The ear, however, has to do a lot of work.  It
reminds me of a family dinner where each member talks about his particular
day, without much of an attempt to relate to the stories of others.
There's very little in the way of conventional transition.  Changes are
either short or downright abrupt, mostly pivoting on a kind of rhythmic
punning.  A three-note dotted rhythm suddenly becomes a syncopated
six-note rhythm, although you can tell how he moves from one to the
other.  At times, this kind of shift reminded me of the classic spoonerism,
"The shore was strewn with erotic blacks."

The second movement, a barbaric scherzo enclosing a worrisome trio, may
bring to mind Holst, in particular the Fugal Overture (scherzo) and The
Planets' "Saturn" (trio).  What I've come to regard as the symphonic
cycle's "motto-rhythm" pounds out prominently in the scherzo.  All sorts
of contrapuntal tricks pop up (including the scherzo subject played
against itself upside-down, in canon, and every which way but loose),
and one encounters brilliant orchestral touches, including a marvelous
passage for violin solo in chords at the scherzo subject's return.

The slow finale updates the Mahler adagio, and here and there one finds
a Mahler turn of phrase and passages of Mahler-inspired counterpoint
within Alwyn's own classic modern idiom.  As the movement progresses,
we recollect, not necessarily in tranquility, the earlier movements,
which the adagio gently pushes away, and we end in a Mahler-like "long
farewell."

The Sinfonietta for String Orchestra counts as a "late" Alwyn orchestral
work, since toward the end of his career, he concentrated on opera, vocal
music, and chamber pieces.  It followed by a few years the string trio
and, although resoundingly tonal, still shows traces of Alwyn's study
of the Second Viennese School.  Indeed, it combines in idiosyncratic
ways fin de siecle Viennese thematic shapes, especially in the slow,
lyric passages, with English neo-classical rhythms and harmonies.  Why
he called it a Sinfonietta rather than a Symphony, I don't know, unless
he worried about a length of "merely" twenty-two minutes.  However, to
me, it's as much a symphony as Honegger's Second, also for strings, and
matches that score's vigor as well.  The breeze from the land of Angst
mit Schlag may have something to do with Alwyn's desire to write a work
dedicated to the eminent musicologist and analyst Mosco Carner, who
championed the Schoenberg school, as well as Bartok and Bloch, among
others.  The composer confessed that he had "centred" the work (whatever
that means) on a quote from Berg's Lulu, an opera he admired.  The
particular phrase "haunted" him.  The Sinfonietta - in three movements,
fast-slow-fast - proceeds a little more conventionally than any of the
symphonies.  One looks in vain for the quick changes of mood found in
the fourth, for example.  Things here are much more of a piece.  One
finds the usual contrast of "masculine" and "feminine" themes, rather
than the bounteous variety of shades in the symphonies.  The Viennese
notes tend to sound more noticeably in the lyrical sections, and,
accordingly, they achieve greatest prominence in the slow movement,
which I would describe as a dodecaphonic adagio without the dodecaphony. 
It reminds me of Schoenberg before he tried to bury tonality, when (like
Wagner in Tristan) he reveled in soars and swoops of major sevenths and
minor ninths.  Alwyn, however, writes more cleanly than Schoenberg. 
In fact, the string writing throughout the Sinfonietta shows a mastery
of texture and technique.  Alwyn, by the way, was a flutist.  After a
foot-stomping opening, the third movement settles into a variation set,
which includes an intricate fugue.  Here, we have the some of the
mood-shifting that so strongly marks the symphonies, but the sturdy
formal and rhetorical clarity takes a bit of the edge off.  The work
ends quietly, on a prolonged sigh.

I believe this marks the end of the Naxos/Lloyd-Jones symphonic cycle,
although I read that there's more Alwyn on the way.  At least, I hope
that's true.  Overall a splendid series, it competed easily with the
composer on Lyrita and Richard Hickox on Chandos.  I confess, however,
to slight disappointment with this particular disc, mainly because of
the first movement of the Fourth.  Like the Brahms Fourth or the Sibelius
First, it needs a very capable conductor indeed (and apparently a bit
of luck) to keep the thing from disintegrating like an aspirin tablet
in water.  Alwyn certainly gives you very little help.  Lloyd-Jones has
proven himself again and again as a fine conductor, but I think Hickox
does a better job here of holding things together.  But that may not
count for much.  Lloyd-Jones does well enough, the engineering is
outstanding, and you really can't beat the Naxos price.

Steve Schwartz

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