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ClassicsOnline Home » ALWYN, W.: Concerti Grossi Nos. 2 and 3 / 7 Irish Tunes / The Moor of Venice (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Lloyd-Jones)
There are several descriptive scores in William Alwyn’s prolific output, including The Moor of Venice Dramatic Overture which examines the turbulent central character in Shakespeare’s Othello. The Serenade and the orchestral version of Seven Irish Tunes receive première recordings here, both covering a wide range of moods. Following his acclaimed recording of the Concerto Grosso No. 1 (Naxos 8.570704), David Lloyd-Jones here completes the set, the second of which is scored for strings, and concluding with the Concerto Grosso No. 3 which is a tribute to Sir Henry Wood.
William Alwyn (1905–1985)
Concerti Grossi Nos. 2 and 3 • Serenade • Seven Irish Tunes
William Alwyn was born in Northampton on 7 November 1905, and died in Southwold, Suffolk on 11 September 1985 just two months short of what would have been his eightieth birthday. He began his musical studies in 1920 aged just fifteen, studying flute, piano, and composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music where, in 1926, at the age of 21, he was appointed Professor of Composition, a position that he was to retain for almost thirty years. During his long and prolific career Alwyn produced close to three hundred compositions that include music in the majority of genres, opera, ballet, orchestral, chamber, instrumental and song. His major orchestral works include five symphonies, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, harp and piano (two), a Sinfonietta for string orchestra, and three Concerti grossi. In addition to this Alwyn contributed approximately two hundred scores for the cinema, seventy of which are feature films with the remainder being documentaries. He began his career in the documentary movement in 1936 and, along with fellow British composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), became something of a pioneer in this medium. In 1941 he wrote his first feature-length score for Penn of Pennsylvania. Other notable film scores include Desert Victory, The Way Ahead, The True Glory, Odd Man Out, The History of Mr Polly, The Rake’s Progress, The Fallen Idol, The Winslow Boy, The Rocking Horse Winner, The Crimson Pirate, The Million Pound Note, The Card, A Night To Remember, and Carve Her Name With Pride. This dedication to the art of writing film music was recognised in 1951 when Alwyn was made a Fellow of the British Film Academy, the only composer until very recently to receive this honour. In addition to his work in the cinema, Alwyn also provided much incidental music for both radio and television.
Alwyn was also active in many administrative posts that included serving as Chairman for the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, (which he was instrumental in forming), for three terms in 1949, 1950 and 1954, as a Director of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, a Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (S.P.N.M.), and Director of the Performing Rights Society. Also, for many years he was one of the panel reading new scores for the BBC. During the 1950s his music was championed by the conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1899–1970), who gave many first performances of Alwyn’s music amongst which are three of the Symphonies - No. 1 (dedicated to Barbirolli), No. 2 and No. 4.
Alwyn spent the last 25 years of his life in the Suffolk village of Blythburgh where, in those tranquil surroundings, he found the necessary inspiration to compose two operas, Juan or the Libertine in four acts to his own libretto, and Miss Julie in two acts after the play by August Strindberg. In addition to chamber and vocal music, Alwyn composed his last major orchestral works there amongst which are the Sinfonietta for string orchestra in 1970 and the Symphony No. 5 ‘Hydriotaphia’ during 1972–73. In 1978 he was awarded a CBE in recognition of his services to music. Such was his desire always to be creative that when not composing music he spent his time painting and writing. Amongst his writings is a short autobiography entitled Winged Chariot, some poetry and prose and, perhaps most fascinating of all, a diary entitled Ariel to Miranda, that he kept between September 1955 and August 1956 whilst composing his Third Symphony, which documents his daily routine composing for the cinema and concert hall.
The Moor of Venice Dramatic Overture was composed in 1956 as a direct result of a commission from the BBC Light Programme. The work was originally conceived for brass band, but on this recording is heard in the orchestral version prepared by Philip Lane in 2001. The composer wrote: “Shakespeare, in his tragedy Othello, the Moor of Venice, tells a tale of treachery and deceit which culminates in the murder of the chaste Desdemona by her demented husband. The Overture re-tells the story in the form of a character study of the Moor of Venice. After a solemn opening, heavy with foreboding tragedy, Desdemona is depicted singing the traditional Willow Song, which Shakespeare uses so pathetically in his play. The Moor, a general in the service of the Doge of Venice, is portrayed by the stormy and martial music which follows. A fugal section describes the wiles of Iago, and the protestations of Desdemona, but Othello is maddened with jealousy, and the climax of the music comes with the murder of the innocent wife; she dies to a strangled phrase of her song. The Overture closes with a solemn coda.” The première of the brass version was given by massed bands (The Scottish All Stars Band, Scottish C.W.S. Band and Foden’s Motor Works Band) at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 26 May 1956 under the direction of the composer. The orchestral version still awaits a concert performance.
The second of Alwyn’s Three Concerti Grossi was completed five years after the first (available on Naxos 8.570704) in October 1948. This second Concerto in G is scored for string orchestra only and is dedicated to Muir Mathieson (1911–1975), who conducted so many of Alwyn’s film scores. The work, cast in three movements, contrasts a string quartet group with the full string section. The first movement Allegro moderato vigoroso opens with a rising and falling figure presented in the violins only after which the full string section enters. A bustling mood is set to dominate much of the movement save for a quieter middle section in which the quartet group is pitted against the tutti. After an impassioned climax the opening motif reappears in the full strings and the movement comes to a vigorous and forceful close. The second movement, Adagio ed espressivo, opens calmly with the solo quartet playing con sordino (with mutes) that paves the way for a gentle melody played by muted first violins of the full string section. After some brief contrasting interplay between the quartet and strings the main melody returns pianissimo in the tutti accompanied by decorative passage work from the first violin in the quartet. The movement plays out quietly with the two violins from the quartet musing on the previous melodic idea accompanied by softly sustained chords in the main string section. The third movement Vivace (allegro ma non troppo) opens fortissimo in an ebullient mood which is retained throughout much of the movement. After a mysterious pianissimo section the momentum gathers reaching a fortissimo climax leading to a restatement of the main theme from the first movement. At a sudden drop in tempi and dynamics the quartet enter with a partial restatement of the opening to the slow movement before proceedings come to an abrupt fortissimo close. The Concerto Grosso No. 2 received its première at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 7 May 1950 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent.
In April 1932 Alwyn set sail for Australia on a nine month examination tour for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. While in Brisbane, Queensland, between June and August, he completed his String Quartet No. 10 (En Voyage) and the Serenade for orchestra here receiving its first recording. The original manuscript bears the inscription “for my wife on her birthday”. The Serenade has four contrasting movements. The opening Prelude begins quietly with a rising motif announced by a solo trumpet in unison with the harp, immediately taken up by the first horn. A chromatic figure follows in the woodwind which is then taken up by the violins. This figure forms the basis for the remainder of the piece which ends fortissimo with the four horns declaiming the opening motif followed by a C major chord. The second movement Bacchanal is named after the lithograph entitled The Procession, (aka Bacchus 1915) by the Australian artist and writer Norman Lindsay (1879–1969), that depicts a piping faun leading a rout of naked nymphs and satyrs. A brief, quiet chromatic figure announced in the horns leads to the faun’s theme announced by a solo flute accompanied by pizzicato strings. This motif is developed leading to a climax in the full orchestra after which a sudden drop in dynamics leads to a partial restatement of the faun’s theme played this time by the strings. A further full orchestral climax soon follows, leading immediately to a hushed close in which the opening horn motif re-appears in the woodwind followed closely by a descending motif in the cellos and basses as the faun and his revellers disappear into the distance. The third movement Air is scored for the strings only (which remain muted throughout) and is prefaced with these lines from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra - Part 2 XXVII - The Virtuous – “…beauty’s voice speaketh gently: it appealeth only to the most awakened souls.” A calm song-like melody in the key of C major is announced pianissimo in the violins accompanied by a murmuring figure in the cellos. The tranquil mood remains throughout this brief movement concluding with a partial restatement of the main theme played on a solo violin. The Dvořák-flavoured Finale (Alwyn was a great admirer of Czech music) scored for the full orchestra is prefaced with the words “Home thoughts from Abroad”. Whether Alwyn is referring to the famous poem of the same name by Robert Browning (1812–1889), or just stating a personal feeling of home-sickness is not entirely clear; perhaps it is both. After a brief five-bar introduction a folkinspired melody in E minor is announced by the clarinet accompanied by pizzicato string chords. This theme and variants of it are passed amongst various instruments in the orchestra before arriving at a slower central section in which the theme is presented gently in the key of E major played by the strings con sordino. Back in the home key of E minor a brief Presto section follows with a whirling solo flute melody which is immediately taken up by the first violins. At a climax the initial tempo of the movement returns with a variant of the opening motif; the tempo accelerates and the movement ends dramatically with a fortissimo chord. It would seem that this work was never performed during Alwyn’s lifetime.
Seven Irish Tunes - Suite for small orchestra that appeared in 1936 (again receiving its first recording) is Alwyn’s arrangement of tunes taken from the Petrie Collection of Irish Music that was published in the mid-nineteenth century. Alwyn had already used six of these tunes previously in the Seven Irish Tunes for string quartet written between August and September 1923. For some reason Who’ll Buy My Besoms? that appeared in the string quartet arrangement was replaced by another tune entitled The Sigh. Each of these seven engaging tunes, skilfully arranged and colourfully orchestrated, ranges in mood from the gentle calm of The Little Red Lark, The Maiden Ray, The Gentle Maiden, the jolly Country Tune, the melancholic The Sigh, through to the vivacious Reel - The Ewe with the Crooked Horn and jubilant final Jig. The first performance of the work was given in a BBC Broadcast by the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra conducted by Philip Whiteway on 22 February 1937. A further four BBC broadcasts would follow in performances conducted respectively by Leslie Heward and Eric Fogg during 1938.
The Concerto Grosso No. 3 was completed in Blythburgh during May 1964. The work resulted as a direct commission from the BBC to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of the conductor and founder of the Promenade Concerts Sir Henry Wood (1869–1944). Concerto Grosso No. 3 is scored for woodwind, brass and strings and the dedication at the top of the title manuscript page reads “To the ‘ever-loving’ memory of Henry Wood”. The work is intended as a tribute to his memory rather than a morbid ‘in memoriam’. The first of the three movements, Maestoso - Moderato e ritmico, begins with six powerful fortissimo chords announced in the strings that leads immediately to a rhythmically driven motto in the woodwinds, brass and strings. The brass is set to dominate much of the movement with a particularly memorable declamatory motif first announced in the horns followed by trumpets and trombones. The movement closes with a quiet muted trumpet passage accompanied by strings and two final fortissimo chords. The second movement, marked Andante, begins mysteriously in the violas, cellos and basses that are then joined by the violins. A two-bar muted horn passage leads directly into the Vivace section, a scherzo in all but name, with the woodwind dominating this time (the violins are the only section of the strings to be used for the duration of the rest of the movement). An exuberant mood continues throughout the remainder of the movement, which includes a brief jaunty theme first announced in the trumpets, followed respectively by the first horn, first trumpet, and first horn again. Rhythmically driven woodwind and brass bring the movement to a fortissimo close. In the slow final movement (Andante) the strings dominate with only a few brief interjections from the woodwind and brass. A nine-bar introduction leads to the main theme of the movement, which is announced in the cellos; one can hear here a brief fragment of the main theme to the first movement of Elgar’s First Symphony. A mood of serenity continues for much of the remainder of the movement until toward the end there is a brief fortissimo passage underpinned by the woodwind and brass. The movement ends solemnly and as such provides a fitting tribute to a much loved conductor and musician whom Alwyn greatly admired. The first performance of the Concerto Grosso No. 3 took place in London’s Royal Albert Hall on 19 August 1964 when the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer.
(Alwyn’s programme note for The Moor of Venice Dramatic Overture is reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.)
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ALWYN, W.: Concerti Grossi Nos. 2 and 3 / 7 Irish ...