Alwyn: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3

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COMPOSERS: Alwyn
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Alwyn
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3
PERFORMER: Royal Liverpool PO/David Lloyd-Jones
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557648
For younger readers the phrase ‘Cheltenham Symphony’ probably doesn’t mean a great deal. But for at least two decades after the Second World War it represented all that was worthiest and dullest in serious British concert music. William Alwyn’s First Symphony, premiered at Cheltenham in 1950, is a good deal better than that. The imagination is fresher, the lyricism more appealing, the orchestration far less redolent of post-war drabness than that of, say, Peter Racine Fricker or Humphrey Searle (once big names at Cheltenham).

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But there is a still the sense that Alwyn’s scope as a symphonist is limited by time and place – not enriched by it, as Malcolm Arnold’s sometimes is. That feeling grows even stronger in the Third Symphony, in which Alwyn grapples with a kind of tonal serialism, but ends up being musically trapped by it – rather like a man wrestling with a recalcitrant deckchair. The genuine freedom and energy of the one-movement Fifth Symphony (‘Hydriotaphia’) seems paradoxically further off in Symphony No. 3 than in the promising First. David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra put up a typically potent, well-considered case for both works though, but compared to the Richard Hickox version on Chandos they lack the last degree of brilliance and intensity. And, good as it is, the Naxos sound doesn’t quite match the Chandos openness and warm clarity. The bargain price is tempting; but if you’re new to Alwyn and feel like giving the symphonies a try, start with No. 5. Stephen Johnson