ALWYN: Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 3.
Royal Liverpool Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones, cond.
Naxos 8.557648 (B) (DDD) TT: 68:50

This CD features both William Alwyn's first symphony and also probably his most-played. Alwyn had written concert works before, even destroying or withdrawing a ton of early stuff. Yet, he remained little-known in concert halls. To some extent, this state of affairs still persists. I recently read a biography of the American Marc Blitzstein, in which (surprising to find the mention at all) the author identifies Alwyn as "a prolific film composer." Alwyn was that, of course -- and a fine one, to boot. Up until the symphonies, that's probably even how many in the British listening audience thought of him, despite the fact that he had held a professorship of composition at the Royal College of Music ever since the tender age of 21. But his first four symphonies changed that perception, even though Alwyn's music suffered from the general neglect visited upon Neo-Romantics from the late Fifties through the Seventies. Nevertheless, at least people knew him as a symphonist. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the old Lyrita label, recordings of his works found their way to the United States and Canada, where they won a small bloc of hard-core fans.

Alwyn's music, beautifully-crafted and passionate, generally reminds me of a great nineteenth-century English novel - rich, dramatic, with a certain amount of gravitas combined with great energy. To some extent, his mature work shares much with the idiom of Walton's first symphony. That is, he's not particularly folkloric, Stravinskian, or Hindemithian. If anybody, Sibelius -- more the tone of Sibelius than anything concrete -- hovers in the symphony's more obscure corners. Despite that, the pleasures of Alwyn's music don't come from encountering a readily-identifiable voice, like Elgar's, Vaughan Williams's, or even Walton's. Rather, one hears something shared with many others, but done supremely well.

Reportedly, Alwyn conceived the basic procedures of his first four symphonies in one go. I remark on it, only because, unusually enough, the scores show four different approaches to the problem of writing a symphony. Thus, Alwyn came up with the bases for four completely different symphonies at once. The first symphony, dedicated to Barbirolli (who premiered it in 1950), uses mainly three basic ideas, or cells, throughout all its four movements. Alwyn's own notes identify four cells, but I hear the fourth as definitely related to one of the other three. You may regard that as a fine point, I suppose, but it does have consequences on the perception of Alwyn's symphonic procedures. Strangely enough, there's very little conventional development in an Alwyn symphony. Instead, he constantly varies his cells, either altering rhythms and pitches or placing them in arresting new contexts. You might say the symphony is all development, even continuous development, as one striking thought suggests another. Yet everything hangs together, with the freedom and power that an outstanding symphonic rhetorician can give. The symphony never feels constricted. It breathes and takes large strides. Alwyn's themes in the first symphony, often composites of the three basic cells, tend to share shapes. For example, many ideas begin with a rising or falling second, major or minor. This fruitful economy gives the argument great cohesion, and Alwyn's craft allows him to skirt the trap of repetitiveness. This score should have announced a major symphonist, not just to Britain, but to the world. The times simply weren't right, and probably still aren't.

The third symphony of 1954, premiered by Beecham (Barbirolli fell ill), shows the same composing habits. The ideas for all three movements appear in its opening pages. Alwyn proposed the influence of Schoenberg by asserting that the symphony worked with all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, but in a tonal way. Walton had done the same thing earlier in his second symphony, and it could be argued that Vaughan Williams (in his Symphony No. 4) and, in the United States Virgil Thomson and Stravinsky, far more knowingly in the Forties, had preceded him. In none of these cases, however, is the influence of Schoenberg all that apparent, and I believe it's misguided to think of "composing with twelve tones" in this way. Far more importantly, if a composer uses a highly chromatic idiom anyway, sooner or later he quite easily thinks about how to organize as many notes of the scale as possible. Schoenberg got composers thinking along more systematic lines, even composers who never lost tonality. Indeed, one might contend that Schoenberg's deepest influence wasn't on twelve-tone composers at all. In England, for example, Schoenberg influenced Britten more deeply than he did Humphrey Searle, although Searle wrote full-blown dodecaphonic works. Alwyn did become interested enough in Schoenberg's method to adopt it in his String Trio eight years later, with much of the same aesthetic as well. At this point, however, Walton, not Schoenberg, dominates. If Walton doesn't give you fits, you will have no problems with this symphony.

Moreover, if the composer hadn't brought it up, you wouldn't have known. The interval of a third, major and minor, impresses itself throughout the symphony far more prominently than any pitch-series, as does a "snare-drum" rhythmic idea on a single pitch, heard at the very beginning. There's Waltonian energy and dazzle in the first movement, a spectacular economy in the second, and a hurly-burly in the third. The composer divides up his "series" into two parts: one for the first movement, one for the second, and the two in antiphony for the last. For me, the second movement stands out, consisting largely of only four pitches (D E F Ab). Just as a compositional feat, it's bloody brilliant, but it scores emotionally as well, inhabiting much the same psychic territory as Holst's "Saturn." As in the first symphony, there's hardly any conventional development in any of the movements. Again, one gets instead a "continuous" development that leads to striking new ideas. Sometimes, even the same general ideas hit you differently. For example, the first and final movements end in almost exactly the same way, a wind-down to what you think is nothing, only to ramp up to a bang in the last few measures. In the first movement, such an ending seems, somehow, strangely "proper." In the last, it really does come as a surprise, like a sleeping lion who suddenly snaps awake. You jerk back just in time.
I can't praise Lloyd-Jones and his Liverpudlians enough. Lloyd-Jones began as a specialist in Russian nationalist music and made pioneering recordings of Rimsky, Balakirev, and Borodin. His editions of Mussorgsky championed the Real Mussorgsky at a time when we got the composer heavily tarted-up by other hands. Although I love Rimsky's versions of Mussorgsky, I can now think of them as I think of Mozart's "Handel" -- a piece lovable in its own way, rather than in the composer's way. Lloyd-Jones gave me that luxury. His Alwyn series on Naxos has been a joy and a revelation, with accounts that surpass the composer's own. The band plays with rhythmic vigor and gorgeous tone. What a bargain!

S.G.S. (May 2006)