Towering Impact and Individuality in Alwyn’s Third Symphony at Snape

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Alwyn, Tchaikovsky, Walton: Jennifer Pike (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra/John Gibbons (conductor), Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 5.10.2016. (RB)

Tchaikovsky -Violin Concerto

Alwyn – Symphony No.3; Odd Man Out Suite (Prelude; Police-Chase; Nemesis–Finale)

Walton – Battle of Britain Suite

Snape Maltings is prime Britten tenure. Beyond that Mozart, Schubert and Shostakovich would have come as no surprise, and among British composers there’s Berkeley, Bridge and the Matthews brothers< But Alwyn? Hardly.

That said, the sixth William Alwyn Festival (5-9 October 2016) for the first time held one of its orchestral concerts at Snape Maltings. Next year there will be two major orchestral concerts at the same venue, the first with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the final one with the Prometheus Orchestra.

2016 sees ten events including a John McCabe memorial concert and the final fixture held in Orford with rare return performances by the Prometheus Orchestra of Alwyn’s Aphrodite in Aulis and Seven Irish Tunes, fellow Northamptonian Malcolm Arnold’s Serenade and Elis Pehkonen’s Viola Concerto.

Taking place on the evening of Festival Day 1 this was not the first concert in the festival. That honour fell to a chamber concert held on the morning of Snape concert at Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh. The hall, a sober triumph of wood-vaulted ceiling and brick walls, was about half full for what proved an attractive Wednesday night concert. The conductor John Gibbons enthused orchestra and audience with his vigorous and apt direction and spoken introductions. He knows his British music having specialised in it for years. It wasn’t long ago that I heard him in Lloyd’s Sixth and his Arnold Sixth crowns the forthcoming Arnold Festival. Sadly I missed his recentish Rubbra Fourth in Worthing. Like colleague conductors George Vass, Andrew Gourlay and Michael Seal we do not hear enough of him.

Remember the Jules Dassin film noir movies of the late 1940s with scores by Rozsa and Waxman? Well, that same oppressively pounding intensity haunts the three scenes from the Carol Reed/James Mason film Odd Man Out. The ‘theatre overture’ piles tension on tension with all the hammering excitement of Alwyn’s Fourth Symphony. Noble strings of the sort that sing out in the Alwyn First Symphony provide similar relief here and there is an apt Irish under-lilt to the big tune. It’s all melodramatic stuff and Alwyn’s orchestration seems to be active in every part of the sound spectrum – a sort of gloomy kinetic excitement. There is some poetry in the Nemesis and a notable oboe solo. After that came Jennifer Pike in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto which turned out to be more than a sweetener in what can be read as a specialist-enthusiast’s concert. The Maltings’ concert-hall acoustic is quite special and should be studied and emulated by today’s concert-space architects.

Sitting towards the back and top of the tiered seating in row U I heard Pike’s violin quite clearly at all times. No doubt this is also a function of Gibbon’s assiduous balancing of the orchestra but it is not to be taken for granted. Pike’s tone is steady and pretty clean – not troubled by excessive vibrato yet the panache and sheer torque of her delivery is striking. Her pizzicato is not wizened but has the richness of an extended contact note. Her sound reminded me of another favourite, Vilde Frang. It was a performance of zest without ‘flat’ spots. There was also some especially nice playing from the bassoon. Pike played a segment of The Lark Ascending as a time-stilling encore.

After the interval came a suite from Walton’s music for the 1968 film The Battle of Britain. The meat of the suite is in The Battle in the Air which was the only section of the Walton score to be used in the soundtrack. This was done very well by John Wilson at the 2013 Proms. John Gibbons did likewise – keeping up the ruthless tension of a piece which in parts betrays – indeed shouts – the DNA of Walton’s friend Malcolm Arnold. Along the way there’s a typically life-affirming yet brief Walton march-and-trio.

Alwyn’s Third Symphony was the work which drew me to the concert. It’s a piece which I ‘knew’ from the three recordings (Alwyn, Hickox, Lloyd-Jones) but which reared up in full splendour when experienced live. Premiered by Beecham when Barbirolli fell ill, this was a 1956 BBC commission. In his helpful announcement the conductor referred to the Cold War fear he detected in the score and to its thunderous Holstian Planets moments. They’re certainly there although less so than in Alwyn’s Fourth. Speaking of other composers I detected a kinship with another Cold War work: Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony. This half hour symphony came over with towering impact and individuality. The first movement’s rapturous horns and long sighing and glimmering violin lines (an Alwyn hallmark as much as the eloquent horns) provide remission from a sense of remorseless pursuit. The second movement’s march of lost souls through numbing desolation has various skeletal landmarks including solos for principal flute and first violin. The finale shows every sign of ending in the sort of Baxian peace (harp and celesta in evidence) to be found at the end of that composer’s Sixth Symphony. There’s even an affecting tuba solo reaching out to the equivalent in Bax’s Fifth. However the symphony ends forte as it rears up in a not unequivocal climax.

I do hope that Andrew Knowles, who is to all intents and purposes, the driving force of the Alwyn Festival as much as Paul Harris is for the Arnold and Em Marshall-Luck for the EMF, will next year let us have the fourth and fifth symphonies which for me stand at the pinnacle of the Alwyn achievement.

This concert was recorded for future broadcast.

By the way, the intensive Malcolm Arnold Festival 2016 takes place later this month over one very densely diaried weekend. ‘The Third Man’ (alphabetically after Alwyn and Arnold), Rubbra has had his celebrations at a much more muted level, having to settle for BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week. It’s satisfying that Rubbra’s sons Benedict and Adrian spoke across the week but disappointing that the days when the BBC commissioned new studio performances seems to have gone. What a shame!

Rob Barnett

3 thoughts on “Towering Impact and Individuality in Alwyn’s Third Symphony at Snape”

  1. We shared a birthday. On November 7th 1973, Radio 3 played a recording of his Third Symphony. It blew me away. I wrote to him in admiration. We had a correspondence thereafter up to his death. He kindly sent me his three books of poetry. I still have these letters if his archive might like them.

    • Thank you for this heartfelt comment to S&H. This is not my field of expertise but I see there is an Alwyn website you might try to contact.

  2. Dear Mr. Johns, I manage the William Alwyn Archive at Cambridge University Library. Please contact me on We have a batch of letters from you in the Archive already – I hadn’t realised you shared a birthday with William. Please let me know if you’d like copies of them. Many thanks for thinking of us, Margaret


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