Dutton CDSJB 1029, 62:43 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
William Alwyn (1905-1985) retains his reputation as a film composer, having scored some 70 motion pictures for British and American cinema. The Winslow Boy and The Fallen Idol come to mind pre-eminently. The Symphony No. 1 (1949), dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, had its premier at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival, and critics were wont to criticize its syntax as typical of Alwyn’s film scores. Rather lugubrious in tone, the music has a post-World War II sensibility, crossing the harmonic and textural lines of Scandinavian music, like Sibelius (especially Tapiola), with a tonal, modernist acerbity, as we hear in Alex North. In four conventional movements, the opening, introductory material leads to a Sonata-allegro, followed by a Scherzo, an Adagio ma con moto, and an Allegro jubilante. If the materials are not particularly memorable, they are definitely melodic; it might do to compare Alwyn’s powerfully academic style with the work of American David Diamond. Barbirolli’s performance (11 June 1952) emphasizes its austere lines and highly rarified writing for strings and winds. Sonic quality varies within the course of the performance, sometimes becoming quite hollow with that phone-booth reverberation which is both muddy and distant.
The Second Symphony (25 October 1953) is conceived as one movement which subdivides into four sections, a Lisztian approach to construction; perhaps the Sibelius Seventh Symphony is an influence. The work remains tonal and even modal in character, having a more singular cast than the First Symphony. The opening motif in the bassoons and violins becomes the source of subsequent development. The tympani maintains ominous triplet figures. The trumpets, harp, and tympani become quite agitated. The brief Molto moderato section, plaintive in the cellos, projects a neo-romantic character. The Allegro molto section pens with a decided bang, then gloomy and mysterious grumblings and dark interjections reign. Admittedly, the music does resemble something for films by Bernard Hermann. An oboe brings us to the Moderato largamente–Molto tranquillo, rife with colors out of Debussy, Wagner, even Loeffler. The writing becomes aggressively militant, with the kettle and snare drums quite prominent; then, the music becomes heraldic in a manner reminiscent of the Sibelius E Minor Symphony. The Molto tranquillo section shows off the Halle brass to advantage. This symphony deserves repeated hearings.
— Gary Lemco