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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]
Maggini Quartet (Lorraine McAslan (violin); David Angel (violin); Martin Outram (viola); Michael Kaznowski (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk from 9-11 December 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.570560 [68:53]
Experience Classicsonline

I 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.
 
It 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 nowadays.
 
It 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.
 
Although 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.
 
The First 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.

In 1975, when Alwyn was 70, he wrote his Second Quartet. It is subtitled ‘Spring Waters.’ On the score there is a quotation from Turgenev:-
 
My careless years
My precious days
Like the water of springtime
Have melted away.
 
The 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.
 
In 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”.
 
The Second 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 the work.
 
The String 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.
 
The 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."
 
Alwyn prefaced the score with these words -
 
All that is about me
            a radiance - a sigh
Time now gathers my winding sheet
            of syllable and song.
 
The 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.
 
There 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.
 
John France
 


 


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