Mirages 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.
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a withdrawn, remote romanticism at play.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
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.
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.
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.
real discoveries here – lucid and fearful
poetry transmuted into self-knowledge
via the composer’s consoling self-awareness.