Naxos - Catalogue No: 8.572747
William Alwyn (1905-1985) was a peripheral figure in the world of 20th century music, writing in a largely tonal style, when many of his contemporaries were looking for new tonalities. The consequence is that, in his film music in particular, there are lots of tunes and shifts of mood reflecting the on-screen action resulting in the music being somewhat episodic.
Alwyn fell into film composition by accident; he was an outstanding flautist, working frequently as a session musician, and just happened to be in the right place at the right time when music was urgently needed for a wartime documentary. Listening to the music, it is impossible not to recall the days when films were in black and white and the heroes either flew fighter planes or sailed the high seas.
His writing for propaganda films produced by the Ministry of Information was effective enough to earn him a place on Hitler's blacklist. Although his film music does not have the current popularity of Arnold or Hermann, it was respected enough at the time for Alwyn to be the only composer to be made a Fellow of the British Film Academy. He sought to completely integrate his music with the dialogue, sound effects and action - a very modern approach, but one which is, obviously not evident on this disc.
Alwyn composed music for a number of wartime morale boosters; Desert Victory was one of these, celebrating Montgomery's success in North Africa. It's opening is wonderfully and majestically English in an Elgarian sense, followed by a series of episodes, carefully scored by Martin Ellerby, assisted by Kit Turnbull, allowing the students of the RNCM to demonstrate the range of colours available to a wind orchestra, before a triumphant finale completes the work.
The disc opens with a rousing rendition of music from The Crimson Pirate (1952). It does not take a lot of imagination to imagine the hero, in this case Burt Lancaster swinging from the rigging and impressing the love interest, Eva Bartok, with his swashbuckling skills. The piece starts with rousing fanfares and intricate passagework from the upper winds and some rapid crescendos that remind me of a tube of toothpaste being squeezed. A quiet passage follows when the woodwinds move the theme to the minor key; the next session features a gentle march before bassoon glissandi feature a comic passage suggesting that the sun has now disappeared below the yardarm. The full-on rendition of What shall we do with a drunken sailor? at the end comes as a bit of shock, but closer examination reveals that the thematic material of the piece is loosely derived from this material. The abrupt switches from one mood to another are what one must expect in a medley of material from a film, and the RNCM Wind Orchestra captures them well, showing bold aggression in their playing as well as sensitivity in the gentler passages.
The suite of music from The History of Mr. Polly is rather more subtle, with a hint of Mendelssohn's tune in the wedding scene, although the exciting music representing the fire is rather spoilt by the appearance of For he's a jolly good fellow at the end. There are few moments of tranquillity on the CD as a whole, so the music representing Christabel makes a welcome contrast.
The two marches on the disc make a good contrast; the Way Ahead is quite light and chirpy whereas The True Glory is a more traditional patriotic piece. There are also two waltzes, from The Million Pound Note and In Search of the Castaways , both conjuring images of those heady days when men wore tail coats and the women's dresses were fluffed out with petticoats; both swing us around with considerable elegance.
The suite from Geordie is paradoxically set in the Scottish Highlands and makes much use of musical ideas from north of the border, either actual or implied. The wistful movement representing the two lovers is particularly effective.
This is a very happy CD, full of life and vitality; the subtle scoring enables the listener to forget very quickly that the ensemble contains no strings and the colours of the wind orchestra are exploited to the full. The music successfully evokes the images of a bygone age when men were men and women fell in love with them, and offers a fascinating insight into the way that Alwyn used his music to brighten the dark days of the Second World War and those that followed through the 1950's.