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Jonathan Woolf
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Download: Classicsonline

William ALWYN (1906-1985)
Mirages – a song cycle for baritone and piano (1970) [23:26]
Six Nocturnes for baritone and piano (1973) [13:14]
Slum Song (1947) [4:10]
Seascapes – four songs for soprano, treble recorder and piano (1980) [10:40]
Invocations – a song cycle (1977) [20:36]
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano)
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone)
John Turner (treble recorder)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, March (Invocations) and October (Mirages, Nocturnes, Slum Song) 2006; Henry Wood Hall, April 2007 (Seascapes)
NAXOS 8.570201 [72:06]
Experience Classicsonline

is a set of poems to words by the composer himself. There’s rippling unease and appropriately so in the first, Undine, in which Jeremy Huw Williams’s quite wide vibrato brings an almost quasi-operatic force.  The juxtaposition of flitting nature and stasis in the second is equally dramatically effective. Romantic warmth and ardour vie with stentorian pain (‘Do not leave me’) in the third, The Honeysuckle. And the remorseless pounding and anguished declamation of the final lines of Metronome are almost brutal in their starkness. This is no complaisant cycle, and it doesn’t shirk the big, bleak picture. In the last song for instance he surveys himself in the mirror with the pitiless scrutiny of Lucian Freud  - the disbelief at the sagging of the flesh, ending finally with some sort of reconciliation. Love, loss, disillusion, decay, death, extinction of self; big issues then but not bleakly set. Characterful and full of vitality in fact; fearful, yes, but absorbed by the struggle and by the need to see oneself unflinchingly.

The Six Nocturnes followed three years later and are not quite so forcefully descriptive. There is muted romanticism here and nature setting too; the urgent rain in Summer’s Rain speaks of love’s fissures. The spooky hallucination of Visitation brings one up short and it’s in a setting such as Circle that we are most reminded of the starkness of Mirages; the poems are by Michael Armstrong as they are in Invocations and Seascapes. The latter is a cycle of seven poems set in 1977 by Alwyn. Thee opening of an Alwyn cycle tends to be rather remote; here there’s a withdrawn, remote romanticism at play. The second song Holding the Night strikes me as lacking the dramatic vocal line necessary fully to convey the compressed intense romanticism of the poem. But certainly those who lived through the rainless summer of 1976 will appreciate the parched chordal accompaniment in Drought. The poem that gives its name to the cycle, more fully Invocation to the Queen of Moonlight, is simply beautiful, one of Alwyn’s most mysterious, refractive and lovely inventions. And the cycle ends excitingly with Our Magic Horse, energetically and vitally sung by Elin Manahan Thomas, though her tone can lose body in higher registers.

Seascapes is written for soprano, treble recorder (John Turner) and piano. Thomas sings with almost bloodless purity here, especially in Sea-Mist but of the four I am most taken by the wheeling, wheedling uplift and gentle current-surfing of the Black Gulls. Alwyn composes about birds almost as well as Rex Warner writes poetry about them.

There is another exciting thing here as well. Slum Song, to words by MacNeice is a ballad, reflective, elegant and heard in its first ever recording. The Nocturnes are world premiere recordings as well.

Throughout Iain Burnside plays with a true vein of poetry and sensitivity. There are full texts and the notes by the composer are augmented by those of Andrew Knowles and John Turner.

Some real discoveries here – lucid and fearful poetry transmuted into self-knowledge via the composer’s consoling self-awareness.

Jonathan Woolf 

Alwyn Website



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