William Alwyn's Fifth Symphony (Naxos 8.557647 *****) is action music with knobs on - a terse, forceful score that courts countless dramatic extremes (excitable one bar, serenely peaceful the next) yet keeps firmly to the point. It's also brilliantly orchestrated, with climaxes that never overload, with spectral flute writing and an angelic finale heralded by bells. I listened three times "blind", finding out only later that the Alwyn Five was composed in the early Seventies and dedicated "to the immortal memory of Sir Thomas Browne, physician, philosopher, botanist and archaeologist". The same highly recommendable CD by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones also includes the more expansive Second Symphony and the Harp Concerto "Angel's Songs" ("Lyra angelica"), where each of its four sections is headed by a quotation from the metaphysical poet Giles Fletcher. The sensitive harpist is Suzanne Willison; the sound quality excellent throughout.
Alwyn died in 1985 just before his 80th birthday and was, without doubt, one of our most accomplished symphonists. A year after he was born, Glazunov's Eighth Symphony (Warners 2564 61939-2 ****), the composer's last work in the genre, received its world premiere. Both Alwyn and Glazunov were in key respects out of step with their more radical peers, Glazunov unmistakably conjuring the worlds of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. The Eighth is deeply nostalgic for the past, its language extravagantly rhetorical, its exposed heart the second movement's aching melancholy - which paradoxically opens to a growling gesture that recalls Rachmaninov's First Symphony, music that Glazunov had premiered to disastrous effect just a few years earlier. Could the reference have been symptomatic of guilt? Whatever Glazunov's deeper prompting, this new recording by the Scottish National Orchestra under José Serebrier captures the Eighth Symphony's defiant conservatism, focusing in particular its pride and often delicate scoring: note for example the hushed string playing near the start of the finale. The coupling is a generous and well-played sequence from Glazunov's longest and most lustrous ballet, Raymonda.
Another work that signalled a dying era was Kurt Weill's Second Symphony (Naxos 8.557481 ****). Premiered the year after Hitler came to power, it is music full of profound unease and foreboding. The structure is straightforward enough, three movements contrasting in tempo and texture, but the sullen, moody themes and austere orchestration tell their own unsettling tale, the first with its baleful trumpet solo, the second a march-like largo with moments of ineffable sadness. An element of playful cynicism dominates the finale, but one inevitably leaves Weill Two humbled by its premonitions - even now (especially now!). Marin Alsop directs the Bournemouth Symphony in a strong, purposeful reading, falling short only at the start of the second movement, which ideally needs more tonal body.
Otherwise all goes well and the couplings are equally convincing: the more concise (and at times equally fatalistic) First Symphony and the "Symphonic Nocturne" that arranger Robert Russell Bennett fashioned from Weill's Broadway musical Lady in the Dark. Though frequently plush and outgoing, many shadows remind us of the war-torn Europe that Weill left behind and that still continues haunt us.
Repertoire adventurers should note that the Alwyn and Weill CDs are available at Naxos's super-budget price.Reuse content