ALWYN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Sonata alla toccata
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William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 Sonata alla Toccata Derby Day
William Alwyn shares his centenary year with Tippett,Rawsthorne, Lambert and Seiber, but, as aninstrumentalist, composer, conductor, teacher andcommittee member, he arguably had a greater all-roundinfluence on twentieth-century British musical life thanany of them. Born in Northampton, he showed an earlyinterest in music and as a young child started to learn thepiccolo. At the age of fifteen he entered the RoyalAcademy of Music in London as a flute student, laterwinning scholarships that enabled him to continue hisinstrumental training while studying composition. Hewrote a large number of works while establishing acareer as a virtuoso flautist, and in 1926 he wasappointed Professor of Composition at the Academy.
The following year he joined the London SymphonyOrchestra to play third flute and piccolo (his firstengagement was at the Three Choirs Festival, where hetook part in a performance of The Dream of Gerontiusconducted by Elgar) and also had his first majororchestral work, the Five Preludes for Orchestra,performed at a Promenade Concert in London. In 1938he took the radical step of withdrawing all hiscompositions, believing them to be technicallyunsatisfactory and insufficiently personal in style. Aftera second period of musical study, this time with thescores of composers he revered, he gradually built up abody of 'mature' works that includes five symphonies,concertos, operas, more than two hundred film scores,and much instrumental, chamber and vocal music.
Alwyn, whose name is familiar to many through histeaching works for the piano, had an enduring love ofthe instrument. 'The very touch of my fingers on itskeyboard is a joy in itself', he wrote, 'and itspossibilities and sonorities are infinite'. Yet his largescalepiano works are rarely performed, partly becauseof their demands for a virtuoso technique.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 dates from 1930 and wasinspired by the musicianship of Clifford Curzon (1907-1982), Alwyn's fellow-student at the Royal Academy ofMusic and a lifelong friend. Curzon gave the firstperformance in December 1931, with the composerconducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Oneof the most innovative of Alwyn's early works, theconcerto is cast in a single movement that neverthelessfalls into four recognisable sections. The first, Allegrodeciso, which has a toccata-like opening, is soonfollowed by what is effectively the concerto's slowmovement, marked Adagio tranquillo, a gentlyrhapsodic development of musical ideas alreadypresented. After a return to the mood and tempo of theconcerto's opening, a restatement of the work's firstmain theme quickly builds to an orchestral climax. Thisquietens into the Epilogue, Adagio molto e tranquillo,the introspective beauty of which echoes that of thework's second section and brings the concerto to apeaceful conclusion.
By the time he wrote the Sonata alla toccata fifteenyears later, Alwyn was using the discipline of neoclassicismto structure his mature compositional style,but, typically, he refused to allow his natural lyricism tobe straitjacketed. This 'virtuoso piece for agile fingers',as he described it, therefore begins with a proud C majorpresentation of its thematic material, followed by aseries of variations in toccata form, before eventuallybreaking free from all stylistic constraints to end 'in amood of uninhibited romanticism'. The sonata waswritten for Denis Matthews (1919-1988), who gave thefirst performance at the 1953 Cheltenham Festival.
The works that open and close the programme onthis disc, though quite different in scale and idiom, areclosely connected through circumstance. In 1960 theBBC commissioned Alwyn's Piano Concerto No. 2, tobe given its first performance at that year's season ofPromenade Concerts by the Dutch pianist Cor de Groot(1914-1993). The result was an exuberant anddeliberately crowd-pleasing work that is on a muchlarger scale than its predecessor. Only months before theperformance, however, de Groot's right arm wassuddenly paralysed and his concert career brought to atemporary halt. The premi?¿re was cancelled, and theconcerto then virtually forgotten. Alwyn later revised itby excising the second movement and inserting a shortorchestral passage to link the first and third, but theconcerto was never heard in his lifetime - indeed, it stillawaits a public performance.
Alwyn's second wife, the composer DoreenCarwithen (1922-2003), believed strongly that thebeautiful central Andante should be restored, and it isher reconstruction of the Concerto, which also features arevised conclusion of the first movement, that is heardon this recording. Such is the epic sweep of the workthat it might almost be interpreted as Alwyn's homage toRachmaninov. After a brief crescendo on the brass, thepiano introduces a series of virtuosic octave flurries thatimmediately establish the heroic nature of the Concerto,and the melodies that follow are typically Alwynian intheir breadth and passion. But the movement is also fullof incident and surprise, such as the quiet ending, after along piano cadenza, that leads directly into the centralAndante. The mood of this second movement is mostlycalm and reflective, and its orchestral textures are attimes reduced to almost chamber-music proportions.
This movement, like the first, ends peacefully, withgentle, chorale-like progressions for unaccompaniedpiano.
In contrast, the finale returns to the brilliance of theconcerto's opening but now introduces jazzsyncopations, played with dissonant abandon by thepianist before being taken up by the full orchestra. Acalmer central section suddenly leads into a broad,expressive melody on unison strings before the stridentbrass rhythms of the movement's opening bars reappear.
After a long, virtuosic piano cadenza theorchestra leads the music to a breathless close thatfeatures a final, unexpected harmonic twist.
Having been forced to abandon the concerto, Alwynwas asked to substitute a short, lively piece with whichthe BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by SirMalcolm Sargent, could open a Promenade Concert thatseason. The result was the Overture Derby Day, abrilliant and bustling work that uses the composer's ownversion of twelve-tone technique. This is not as dry oracademic as it may sound, for Alwyn, like hiscontemporary Samuel Barber, was an unashamedRomantic whose adoption of the twelve-tone row wasgrounded in tonality. At pains to point out that thistechnique was merely his stimulus to composition ratherthan an end in itself, Alwyn preferred his music toappeal to the heart rather than to the head - because ofits melodic and harmonic richness rather than themathematical precision of its structure. Derby Day wassupposedly inspired by the painting of the same name byWilliam Powell Frith, a Victorian artist who excelled incrowd scenes, but in fact the title was not assigned untilafter the work was written. 'It seemed aptly to describethe excitement and vitality of the piece', Alwynadmitted, before pointing out that composers areinspired by pictorial ideas much less often than wemight suspect.Andrew Palmer