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Seen & Heard
Editor in Chief
|William Alwyn (1905-1985)
String Quartet No.1 in D minor (1953) [23:07]
String Quartet No.2 Spring Waters (1975) [20:24]
String Quartet No.3 (1984) [22:47]
Novelette: Allegro con brio (1938-39) [2:35]
Quartet (Lorraine McAslan (violin); David Angel (violin);
Martin Outram (viola); Michael Kaznowski (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk from 9-11 December
first discovered the music of William Alwyn by way of his
Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island. The then new
Lyrita LP was one of the featured albums on Record Review
on Radio 3. I remember rushing into Cuthbertson’s music
shop in Glasgow to try to buy it. Luckily, they had a copy
and I quickly bought it and hurried round to a friend’s
house to listen to it. And if I am honest, the work has
remained my favourite piece of Alwyn ever since. There
were only the Lyrita recordings and a single Unicorn LP
of his music available in those days and I soon managed
to add them all to my collection. Christmas and birthdays
certainly came in very handy.
was some years later before I realised that Alywn wrote
a great deal of chamber music. In fact, although there
are only three numbered string quartets, many more were
lost or suppressed when the composer decided to delete
his juvenilia. His first essay in the form was back in
1920, when he was just fifteen years old. He wrote a String
Quartet in G minor. Over the following fifteen years
he composed a further twelve quartets and then the Irish
Suite (1939-40). In 1948 he wrote the Three Winter
Poems. It is only the last named that has currency
was not until 1953 that Alwyn completed the String Quartet
in D minor that he allowed to become his Quartet
No. 1. It would be another twenty or so years before
the Second Quartet appeared and finally the third
was written shortly before the composer died. In fact it
was his last major work.
it would be easy to define Alwyn’s career as a symphonist
or as a film music composer it may be that it is actually
the string quartet that provided the continuity through
his career. In fact, the composer wrote that he was fascinated
by this “most intimate of mediums” and endeavoured to “balance
the four instruments with equally interesting material
to produce a satisfying whole.” Even the most cursory of
hearings of the three works on this CD will surely reveal
that aspiration as having been successfully realised.
Quartet is actually my favourite of the set. It is
cast in four movements. Although I guess the work is
not formally cyclical, the composer has suggested that
the “movements are fused into a whole by the subject
hinted at in the opening few bars.” This theme is heard
again, played very loudly towards the conclusion of the
finale. The ‘scherzo’ is ‘will o’ the wisp’ type of music-
Alywn called it ‘feather-light.’ One reviewer has suggested
that there are nods here to Debussy’s Feux d'artifice.
Certainly there is something of the night here – fireflies
seem to dart across a starlit sky. The heart of the work
is the reflective and somewhat introverted ‘adagio’.
There is much in this movement that is stunningly beautiful:
few pages of Alwyn’s music are more moving than these.
The last movement is surely an optimistic response to
the ‘adagio’. This is a ‘rhythmically driven’ finale
that provides an exciting end to the work. There is a
tranquil middle section that calms things down just a
bit. The String Quartet No. 1 in D minor was first
performed on 1 May 1954 by the New London Quartet.
1975, when Alwyn was 70, he wrote his Second Quartet.
It is subtitled ‘Spring Waters.’ On the score there is
a quotation from Turgenev:-
the water of springtime
composer is keen to point out that these words are not
intended to give any kind of programmatic content – this
is not a description of a hillside torrent! He writes that
they should be “regarded merely as the motivating spark
that fired an essentially abstract composition.” This work
is much more intense than the First Quartet. Listeners
have detected the language of Debussy in this music: I
hear echoes of Bartók and Schoenberg. The music is also
typically less romantic than the first – probably spare
or austere are suitable adjectives to describe this work.
spite of the composer’s insistence that this is an abstract
work, he recalls that each movement was initiated by definite
moods. The moderato – the ‘spring waters’ of high hopes
and romantic illusions soon change into emotions of resignation
and disillusion in the ‘lento’ section. The middle movement
an ‘allegro scherzando’ recalled to the composer “the lost
turbulence of youth and young love, but now seen through
a glass darkly …” The opening bars of the last movement
seem to inhabit a twilight world where death would seem
to be the only possibility. However, both the finale and
the work end positively and the composer suggests that “Death
is not defeat”.
Quartet is very far removed from what is typically
thought to be the composer’s style. This work has moments
of stasis that are rarely found in his orchestral music.
Yet this is a beautiful composition, full of insight
and meaning and is ultimately positive in its peroration.
The work was dedicated to his friend Reg Williamson,
who persuaded - if persuasion was needed - him to write
Quartet No. 3 was completed in the spring of 1984.
The story is that the composer began to consider writing
this work after attending the Chandos recording sessions
of his two earlier essays. The composer wrote that "...
again I was filled with the desire to compose one more
work for this most perfect of mediums." History
tells us that it was his last major work. Yet as a swan-song
it is near perfect. From my perspective it is the finest
of the set, if not my favourite.
work was dedicated to a late friend of the composer - a
certain Sir Cecil Parrott who was a diplomat, an author
and "a most sensitive of music lovers."
prefaced the score with these words -
that is about me
radiance - a sigh
now gathers my winding sheet
syllable and song.
mood is totally different from the predominately pessimistic Second
Quartet. This is not concerned with deep and disturbing
thoughts about old age and ultimate death. This is an optimistic
work, from the pen of someone who perhaps realises that
this is their last major essay, but has largely come to
accept the situation. As a work it is full of energy and
vigour. The general impression of dialectic, of thesis,
antithesis and synthesis permeates the very core of the
piece. This mood is enforced by the large number of tempo
changes and the typically restless nature of the music.
The work ends with an elegiac ‘adagio’. This surely must
be seen as a solace to the composer in his old age. The
work was first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival on 13
June 1985, by the Quartet of London.
The ‘novelty’ on
this CD is the early Novelette that was composed
in 1938-39 for the Oxford String Quartet Series. The programme
notes remind the listener that the idea of this series
to give a number of short pieces that would be suitable
for ensembles that were on the learning curve. Other composers
in the series included Thomas Pitfield and Felix Swinstead.
There is nothing challenging about the Novelette except
to say that it does not play down to the players or the
audience. It is an attractive piece that has an open air
feel to it. Certainly it deserves its place on this recording.
are two other recordings of the String Quartets currently
available – one on Dutton Epoch and the other on Chandos.
I have all three versions in my CD collection as I imagine
many other English music enthusiasts will have too. I must
admit a preference for the Quartet of London’s performances.
It is perhaps prejudice due to the fact that these were
my introduction to these works back in the nineteen-eighties.
For this review I listened carefully to a couple of movements
from the Maggini, the Quartet of London and the Rasumovsky String
Quartet – played back to back- and found that all the recordings
are rather good. The Chandos discs are a little light on
quantity: spread over two CDs that weigh in at three quarters
of an hour each. The Dutton recording has all three quartets
plus the Winter Poems, so it is good value for money.
The present recording has the unknown Novelette as
a useful addition. However, if it came to choosing just
one version I would be stumped …
The Maggini plays this music
convincingly, the technique sounds superb and the balance
of the formal structures and the varying harmonic language
are handled competently. Altogether, a thoroughly enjoyable
recording. Additionally the programme notes by Andrew
Knowles are extremely helpful and informative.
As noted above, this CD is a
must for all Alwyn enthusiasts.
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