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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Fantasy Waltzes (1955) [34:19]
Funeral Rites for the Death of an Artist (1931) [4:45]
Five by Ten: Bicycle Ride (1952) [1:23]
Piece for Piano (1940) [2:58]
Sonata alla Toccata (1946) [10:30]
The Weather Vane (1931) [4:11]
Doreen CARWITHEN (1922-2003)
Sonatina (1946) [14:26]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. August 2013, Birmingham Town Hall
SOMM CD0133 [72:35]

There are a number of premiere recordings on this disc, which should be enticing news for established admirers of Alwyn as well as those who have, in more recent years, come to appreciate the music of Doreen Carwithen. She studied with Alwyn and many years later married him. The central work is Alwyn’s Fantasy Waltzes. This set has been recorded before and the prior examples of Sheila Randall’s pioneering LP now transferred (Lyrita SRCD293) and the more recent ones by John Ogdon (Chandos CHAN8399) and Julian Milford (Chandos CHAN9825) have signalled what an adventurous and enjoyable achievement it is. Now it’s Mark Bebbington’s turn and he too has a rewarding slant on the eleven waltzes, composed between 1954 and 1955. They were dedicated to the short-lived Richard Farrell who premiered the set in 1957, just a year before his death in a car crash.
If Ravel and Strauss come to mind as lode stars at certain salient moments in the set, then one must also acknowledge Alwyn’s confidence in presenting undiluted waltzes. That would, however, underestimate just how much variety of mood and texture is to be found in the set. If Ogdon teases the rubati in the capricious first waltz just a bit more than Bebbington (and Milford), that’s to say no more than that each pianist finds his own way with the eleven. Bebbington prefers a slightly more knockabout approach to the second, for instance, whereas Ogdon’s rhythmic vivacity is the more pronounced. Both however offer delicious results. Bebbington enjoys the ‘false relations’ fourth waltz and really vests it with the requisite grazioso feel. The mysterious, impressionist fifth, with some chording reminiscent of John Ireland, is more mystic under Bebbington’s fingers than either Ogdon or Milford. He is also quite emphatic at certain points, rhythmically speaking, in the carnival festivity of the sixth whilst realising the almost Scriabinesque inscrutability of No.7. The eighth has a deliciously teasing bite, and the ninth - a quasi ballata in Ogdon’s words - has rich sonorities and an almost Rachmaninovian vehemence. Bebbington’s playing of the set is altogether splendid, and can happily be admired independently from that of his putative rivals.
He also plays the Sonata alla Toccata of 1946, one of Alwyn’s best-known piano works. It’s in three movements and is compellingly played here. The maestoso opening is excellently put across with just the right mix of bravado and wit and more than a soupçon of grandiose neo-classicism. The pealing toccata that’s soon unleashed fuses refined lyricism in the semplice qualities of the slow movement. The exciting correspondences of finale to opening movement galvanise the music, resplendently. No wonder Ogdon was so inspired by this work when he heard his teacher, Denis Matthews, playing it. Bebbington should inspire too.
The other Alwyn works are all premiere recordings. Funeral Rites for the Death of an Artist (1931) is a sombre, tolling affair contrasting with the almost Mayerl-like frolic of Bicycle Ride. This comes from a group of nine pieces he contributed in 1952 to a set called Five by Ten. Piece for Piano is an impressionistic affair from 1940. The Weather Vane dates to 1931 and is intended for children to perform. There are five very brief little sketches, charming and brief and not too difficult. Alwyn doesn’t forget to bring character to them, despite their relative simplicities - there’s a nice waltz for The Sunny South for example, though it’s very, very different from those Fantasy Waltzes.
Another first-ever recording is Carwithen’s 1946 Sonatina. This is rather Francophile with a well-upholstered and confident neo-classicism in the air. The three movement Sonatina is lucidly laid out and its heart is the spare, withdrawn, compellingly elliptical slow movement. This leads on to the pealing vibrancy of a finale that has plenty of brio and exuberant figuration. It’s all very exciting and would make an excellent impression in recital. There’s no other performance with which to compare Bebbington’s but there’s every sign that he is wholly in command of the idiom, and I’d say that he sounds as if he loves ever bar of it.
This terrific disc has been excellently recorded in Birmingham Town Hall.
Jonathan Woolf

Alwyn discography & review index