Elizabethan Dances and Other Works/Alwyn

December 19, 2006


To many of you William Alwyn (1905-1985) is a name that you likely are not familiar with at all. Yet, between 1936 and 1963 he composed music for over 200 films. He was also a serious classical composer, a painter, and an accomplished poet. I find it quite ironic that he will be most remembered for his Lyra Angelica because the famous figure skater Michelle Kwan performed to it at the 1998 Olympics. I quote Alwyn from Chandos liner notes: ” I had many offers from Hollywood, but remembering those, once famous, composers who had responded to its lures only to have their talents dimmed and even obliterated by the demands of the film world, I resisted the temptation. In spite of my interest in film making, I was first and foremost a serious composer and each film score I had written was an opportunity for experiment and an exceptional chance, given the splendid orchestras who played my scores, to improve and polish my technique and widen my dramatic range”. It is for this reason that an introduction to the serious classical side is an important one, to better get to know this fine composer. And what better way than a low cost new Naxos release of many of his shorter works.

While the beginning movement of Elizabethan Dances is a piece about Elizabeth I it sure sounds to this reviewer like a sequence for an American Indian war dance complete with the tom-tom beat. As one listens picture a bonfire with Indians dancing around it and see if you don’t feel the same way that I do! The second section is a wonderful waltz slow and very easy on the ears. The third section is an old English style Morris Dance a style dating back to the 1400’s. The fourth section with the brass and castanets and the modern sounding style could easily have come from Bernstein’s West Side Story. Not sure how this relates to Elizabeth II but its a nice sounding composition. The fifth section is a serene quite Pavane and the final section is a lively modern sounding one with Alwyn making really effective use of his brass section. An excellent work that was written in 1957 it certainly is overall quite modern sounding and could make effective film music. The most intriguing work is the Symphonic Prelude “The Magic Island”(1952). This piece is mysterious with references to Debussy and Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. It features a haunting solo on first the Cor Anglais followed by a yearning violin building to a crescendo before fading away to nothing. The work was based on the Shakespeare play The Tempest, the Magic Island being that of Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan. The Festival March is going to conjure up thoughts of Elgar and Walton in the traditional British style. Very proud and proper it was originally commissioned by the Arts of Great Britain for a 1951 festival and Alwyn did not disappoint in anyway. The Inumerable Dance-An English Overture (1933) was first played in 1935 and remained on the shelf until 70 years later when this recording was made! It is a wonderful work based on the poetry of William Blake and is a nice example of a nature piece. Aphrodite in Aulis-An Eclogue for small orchestra also dates from the early 30’s and is based on Aphrodite from a George Moore novel. It is scored for flutes, horns, harp, and strings and is truly a thing of beauty. It too had remained on the shelf for over 70 years. One sometimes ponders why it has taken so many years to surface and be performed. Perhaps anything new is going to raise the eyebrow of the concert goer so the program director chooses safe and conservative. The William Alwyn Foundation provided financial assistance for this recording so it is likely the reason that these two premiere works were included. The final selection is a Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Strings (1943) and is a nice piece to enjoy the soulful sounds of the oboe. Jonathan Small, the soloist, seems to be quite comfortable with this work and performs it well.

This is a CD that could very well be a starting point for you in two different ways. If the style and orchestrations are to your liking, you can very easily move onto the other four in the Naxos cycle and explore more of what he has to offer. You can also choose any or all of three different recordings in the Chandos series. Most of Alywn’s film work was destroyed from a housecleaning at Pinewood Studios (sound familiar) in England so nothing remains other than reconstruction from Christopher Palmer and recently Philip Lane. Listening to serious works from film composers has always been a real treat for me. Some, such as this recording are a joy to listen to. The advantage of a tone poem is the composer has time to fully develop his ideas where in film he might only be allowed 60 seconds. He can certainly bring across his overall ideas but it might be more of a patchwork concept. Like Copland, Arnold, and others Alwyn was first classical and then a film composer the reverse of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. This is definitely worth exploring! Recommended.

Golden Score Rating is ***

Engineer is Phil Rowlands

Produced by Anna Barry

CD# is Naxos 8.570144

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