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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Chamber Music and Songs
1. Rhapsody for Piano Quartet (1938-39) [9:20]
2. Sonata Impromptu for Violin and Viola (1939/1940) [16:44]
3. Ballade for Viola and Piano (1939) [10:01]
4. Two Songs for Voice, Violin and Piano (1931) [4:37]
5. Three Songs to Poems by Trevor Blakemore (1940) [6:40]
6. Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1933) [10:30]
7. Three Winter Poems for String Quartet (1948) [9:00]
8. Chaconne for Tom for Treble Recorder and Piano (1982)
Madeleine Mitchell (violin: 1,2,4,6); Roger Chase (viola: 1-3); Lucy Wilding (cello: 1);
Andrew Ball (piano: 1,3,6); Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone: 4,5); Iain Burnside (piano: 4,5,8); Bridge String Quartet (7); John Turner (treble recorder: 8)
rec. 22 March (8), 17/18 August (1-3) and 10/11 October (4,5) 2006 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
Booklet notes in English and German
Texts for the Two Songs for Voice, Violin and Piano only
First recording: 3-6 & 8
NAXOS 8.570340 [70:15]
Experience Classicsonline

William Alwyn is best known for his orchestral works – in particular the fine series of five symphonies already issued by Naxos – and his music for films such as The History of Mr Polly, Carve Her Name With Pride and A Night to Remember. His songs and chamber music are much less familiar. This fact is reinforced by the fact that five of the eight works on this CD are receiving their first recordings.
This CD includes music which spans fifty years of Alwyn’s career, although all but two of the pieces originate from the decade 1938-48. The earliest works on this enterprising disc are the Two Songs for Voice, Violin and Piano of 1931. Alwyn’s music for voice is probably the least well-known of his less familiar output. These two songs, Wood Magic and Lament of the Tall Tree set poems by Alwyn himself. Both reflect on themes of nature and loneliness and are imaginatively arranged for the unusual line-up of baritone, piano and violin. More conventional are the Three Songs to Words by Trevor Blakemore from 1940. Again, these songs are reflective in nature, although I found them strangely less satisfying that the two earlier settings. I found the recording balance for the songs very slightly on the reverberant side. I would have appreciated having Jeremy Huw Williams’ voice a little closer in the balance relative to Iain Burnside’s piano and swathed in slightly less of Potton Halls’s lovely acoustic. Sadly, no words for the latter three songs were provided in the booklet.
The Rhapsody for Piano Quartet which opens the disc is a strong, muscular work with a more subdued middle section. It reminded me of Bax in parts and I would imagine this would be a welcome addition to the piano quartet repertoire for those that discovered it. The Sonata Impromptu for violin and viola is a slightly later work and was written for Frederick Grinke and Watson Forbes, who gave the first performance in 1940. For me, this piece rewarded repeated listening. It is never easy to write for just two string instruments but Alwyn rises to the challenge admirably, especially in the imaginative Theme and Variations second movement. All three movements use contrapuntal fugal writing allowing the aural illusion of there being more then two instruments present. This is further strengthened by the excellent performance by Madeleine Mitchell and Roger Chase who are perfectly matched as musical partners and lend to the music an apparent ease of execution which belies the music’s technical complexities.
The violist Watson Forbes was one of the dedicatees of another of Alwyn’s works from 1939; the Ballade for Viola and Piano – the other dedicatee being Myers Foggin. Like the slightly earlier Rhapsody for Piano Quartet, the Ballade flows freely from beginning to end, without any serious symphonic ‘development’. Roger Chase again plays beautifully, ably supported by Andrew Ball. The early Sonatina for Violin and Piano from 1933 inhabits a more tranquil, wistful world than the other instrumental pieces on this CD and is one of Alwyn’s more overtly lyrical works. For all its brevity – less than eleven minutes – its three contrasting movements are immensely satisfying and it is astonishing that this is the Sonatina’s first ever recording. As in all her appearances on this disc, Madeleine Mitchell gives a flawless and thoroughly idiomatic performance with Andrew Ball again proving the perfect duo partner.
The Three Winter Poems for String Quartet date from the beginning of 1948 and were dedicated to Alwyn’s former teacher John B McEwen. It is one of many works for string quartet that the composer wrote prior to his ‘official’ First String Quartet in 1953 and it was never performed in Alwyn’s lifetime. It received its first performance by the Maraini Quartet in June 2005, during the composer’s centenary year. These effective miniatures are self-explanatory in their character and the Bridge String Quartet gives convincing but perhaps slightly understated performances.
In later life, Alwyn’s health was not good and he had more or less decided that his composing days were over. However, he was persuaded to put pen to paper again in 1982 when recorder player John Turner was compiling an album of short pieces by his colleagues for composer Thomas Pitfield’s eightieth birthday for the following year. The Chaconne for Tom joined other pieces by Alan Bush, Gordon Crosse, Anthony Gilbert and John McCabe and is an engaging set of variations on Happy Birthday to You for recorder – played here by Turner himself – and piano – here Iain Burnside taking time out from his song accompaniments. It proved actually to be Alwyn’s penultimate work, the Third String Quartet following in 1984.
For lovers of post-romantic English music in general and of William Alwyn’s work in particular, this must be an indispensable issue. Just under half of the disc’s playing time comprises works never heard before on CD and the others – represented on a Chandos CD with only the Rhapsody appears elsewhere as well – all receive the sort of winning performances one has come to expect from Naxos’s superb survey of twentieth-century English music.
Derek Warby

see also review by Ewan McCormick and William Kreindler 

Alwyn discography


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