Cover Painting: Chinese Lanterns by William Alwyn
Concerto for Flute and Eight Wind Instruments (1980)
Suite for Oboe and Harp (1945)
Naiades: Fantasy-Sonata for Flute and Harp (1971)
Music for Three Players (1950)
Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1951)
Notes by Mary Alwyn, © Mary Alwyn
By the late 1930s Alwyn was regarded by his fellow musicians as an avant-garde composer and had achieved a secure place in contemporary music. His works were played at important concerts and were frequently broadcast. From 1936, when he entered, as a pioneer, the Documentary Film Movement, his scores for films were increasingly in demand.
In this decade radio was in its infancy and only a very few gramophone records were available, but there were many opportunities for music to be heard in public. R.C.M. Patron's Fund Concerts were held at the Wigmore Hall; the R.A.M. New Music Society at the Royal Academy of Music. Under the latter's auspices exchange concerts of English music were given in Paris and Warsaw, Alwyn's music being played in both cities - the foreign artists playing the English composer's music, and in return the British musicians giving performances in London of the French and Polish composers. Iris Lemare organized a series of concerts at the Mercury theatre where works by E. Goossens, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Lutyens, Britten and Rawsthorne were played, as well as those by Alwyn. At the Cowdray Hall the London Contemporary Music Centre also gave composers an opportunity to hear their works performed.
All these concerts, together with many of those given daily on the "wireless", were reviewed in The Times and other major newspapers, although the criticisms were not always kindly! Alwyn's Fantasia for String Quartet appeared to last into eternity but a later work, Rhapsody for Piano Quartet was a taught, vigorous work, very effectively written for the medium.
The professional musicians involved in these performances - the distinguished Goossens family: Léon the oboeist, Sidonie and Marie, harpists, and Eugène the composer and conductor, with string players such as Frederick Grinke, Watson Forbes, Douglas Cameron and William Pleeth - were all Alwyn's friends, and so it was inevitable that he should write music for these players, who, in their turn, welcomed the new works specially written for them.
Such writing for friends continued throughout the composer's life - the Concerto for Flute and Eight Wind Instruments (1980) being one of the latest examples, written at the request of William Bennet for the English Chamber Orchestra Wind Ensemble. This work
The little Suite for Oboe and Harp was written for Léon and Sidonie Goossens. It is in three short movements, the last of which is a lively jig with a hint of an Irish folk song. The manuscript, lost for many years, was located in the Léon Goossens bequest of his entire musical repertoire to the British library. He and his sister first played the piece on 25 August 1946, at a Sunday Afternoon Concert which they gave with Joseph Szigette and Gerald Moore, which was broadcast from the concert hall of Broadcasting House.
All creative work is in a sense autobiographical, and Naiades is no exception, for it recaptures both Alwyn's past experience as a professional flautist and his home in the Suffolk countryside.
Naiades was first performed by Christopher Hyde-Smith and Marisa Robles, the dedicatees, at the Bath Festival in May, 1971.
Music for three players. The three players for whom this work was written were Arthur Pennington (violin), Reginald Kell (clarinet) and Richard Favell (piano) - known as the "Claviano Trio". The music consitst of eight short pieces, played with scarcely a break. Alwyn called this work "a group of eight pieces" - and they are rather like a conversazione between three friends. In most of them the piano spans the discussion with the violin and clarinet adding their comments.
The Trio for Flute, cello and Piano was written in the Summer of 1951 for three French artists, all this time involved with the Paris Conservatoire: René le Roy - the flautist who had played Divertimento with such distinction at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in 1941; Jacques Février - the brilliant pianist and champion of Ravel, and Roger Albin - himself a composer as well as a noted cellist.
Alwyn's first symphony had been completed in 1949, and performed at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival. 1951 had seen the publication of his Sonata alla Toccata and he had written the Concerto Grosso No. 2 for strings - but he was never idle, and while his mind was brooding on Symphony No. 2, he found some relaxation in writing this chamber work as a piece for three instruments which involved no large-scale scoring for full orchestra.
The pages of initial sketches contain all the work's ideas, but he did not write immediately in score. Together with these are personal reminders such as "long tune", "echo on cello", "don't forget piano left hand", and "take this a long way in sequence with cello and the build to a climax". This is really how music is composed - the mind always creates faster than the pen can write. Once these first ideas are on paper the complex task of creating the final work begins.
The comparatively short time of two months saw the completion of the Trio, which is in two movements, Adagio ma non troppo and Allegro con brio e giocoso. In the Adagio the two main ideas are heard immediately, the first on the piano and the second on the cello. Much is made of a canon between the flute and cello for this again is very much a "conversation piece" between the players. The rhythmic opening of the Allegro is the basis of much of the movement, and the canon and the "echo on the cello" are much in evidence. A brisk coda is based on the opening theme and ends Fortissimo.
Notes by Mary Alwyn, © Mary Alwyn
Gramophone - October 1993|
Anyone familiar with the scale and spectacle of Alwyn's symphonies might wonder if his chamber music would prove to be inflated. Not so. Its scale is admirable and the part-writing and control of texture endlessly pleases the ear. In short this collection is full of goodies. The very opening of the Concerto for Flute and Eight Instruments brings a luscious burst of sound and then busy intertwining lines. The flute is well embedded in an agreeable mixture of colour, which swirls and coagulates so that, as Alwyn creates his chordal sonorities, the wind balance is rich and succulent, yet never heavy, partly because of the constant surrounding movement. The second movement In tempo grazioso is a piquantly witty little waltz that reminded me somewhat of Sondheim's elegant writing in A Little Night Music (and that is a high tribute). The flute flirts with the main tune, then horns carol. and later a wry secondary theme is particularly attractive when shared by flute and oboe. The sustained Andante has the soloist floating ethereally, developing the same idea more thoughtfully, and later the underlying chords are almost like a melancholy chant. The release comes in the merry finale but not before a slow "fugato". begun on the bassoon, and taken up by the others. reaches a climax, and an accelerando produces the hopping and skipping little flute comment. But the lyrical nostalgia returns hauntingly before the whole group produces a burst of swirling, energy, and, after one more hesitation, the flute leads the pay-off. Structurally this is as appealing as it is tuneful.
The Suite for Oboe and Harp is utterly charming. A gentle "Minuet" leads naturally to a pastoral "Valse miniature", most delicately articulated by Nicholas Daniel and Ieuan Jones. The closing "Jig" is equally winning. The Naiades fantasy for flute and harp is even more delicately transparent, a chimerical piece in six sections (which ought to be cued, or at least indexed). It too has a waltz (somewhat Ravelian) and a flitting finale, like a butterfly in the wind. This leads us naturally into the peaceful opening "Prelude" of the Music for Three Players -violin, clarinet and piano. (Again I was reminded of Ravelian delicacy). This is a suite of eight contrasted vignettes and the "Romance", which comes second, led by the violin, really tickles the car. The sixth movement "Carillon" brings a hypnotic repeated tolling in a piano figuration, while the piano's upper tessitura leads the closing moto perpetuo. Capriccio which also brings a dark clarinet interlude.
The final work, a two-movement Trio, has some soaring writing for the cello which brings lovely playing from Caroline Dearnley and there is an engaging interplay with the flute. It opens gently while the second movement brings all the positive rhythmic feeling of a mock folk song, yet again has a haunting lyrical counterpart.
I have written at length about these works because I enjoyed them all so much and I hope I can tempt you to explore an entirely rewarding anthology. The Haffner Wind Ensemble is very impressive indeed, both individually as personalities and as a team matching timbres expertly. Their playing is full of spontaneity and conveyed enjoyment and the recording is well balanced and very realistic, as we expect from Chandos. The acoustic seems just about perfect. Congratulations to the producer, Tim Handley and the engineer. Richard Lee.