William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Early String Quartets
String Quartet No. 10 En Voyage (1932) [18:49]
String Quartet No. 11 in B minor (1933) [18:56]
Fantasia (String Quartet No. 12) (1935) [12:57]
String Quartet No. 13 (1936) [19:05]
Tippett Quartet (John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violins); Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola); Bozidar Vukotic (cello))
rec. St Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, 2-3 March 2016
First recordings
SOMM SOMMCD0165 [69:48]

If we take numbers of recordings issued as an indicator British composer William Alwyn's music is doing pretty handsomely. The major orchestral works have been tackled from three angles by Lyrita (first in the field), Chandos and Naxos with other companies including Dutton and Somm doing enriching work around the main concourse. Quite apart from the present disc, champions of the cause, Chandos have only very recently given us volume 4 of the film music on CHAN 10930. There will, I am sure, be more to come.

For most Alwyn enthusiasts when string quartets are mentioned they will think of the three works of his sustained maturity years (1955, 1975, 1984). These have been recorded, first by Chandos (review review) on two discs and then, each on a single CD, by the Maggini (Naxos) and the Rasumovsky (Dutton CDLX 7168).

Music poured out from William Alwyn with torrential force and volume. The early works - as far as we have heard them - are highly skilled and compressed tight with good ideas and attention, snaring an atmosphere not always familiar from his later career. My hopes are high for revival of Alwyn's monumental choral-orchestral work of the 1930s: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1936) as well as his neglected opera and music theatre works: Juan or the Libertine (1965-71) and Farewell Companions (1955 - and broadcast three times that year).

The present four works of Alwyn's fecund and determinedly tonal 1930s follow a diversity of movement structures. No. 10 is in four illustratively-titled movements, 11 in three, No. 12 (a Fantasia) in one and 13 in two. The Tenth feels more like a suite (Departure; Sea Birds; Lonely Waters; Trade Winds) in a style that approximates to a vaguely astringent amalgam of Smetana and early Frank Bridge. It has a beckoning quality and is generally very approachable with good ideas and tangy contrasts, skittering and moodily atmospheric. Quartets and listeners looking for intriguing encores need look no further. The Eleventh is reminiscent of Howells' chamber music of the 1910s but with a splash of Holbrooke's music-hall indulgence and Goossens' and Warlock's mildewed musings.

The single-movement Twelfth is dedicated to Alan Bush whose own single-span Dialectic had made waves five years earlier. It's a fairly severe piece where, despite the title, stern takes a higher road than fantasy. There are one or two moments where early Tippett peeks in. Finally comes the bi-partite Thirteenth, the first movement of which is tense and even tormented in the manner of Bridge's last two Quartets. I do not in general respond well to reading contemporary or biographical events into music but if you were looking for shadows of the 1930s they are there to be discerned. The second movement is in a sharply contrasted neo-romantic style.

Excellent notes by Andrew Knowles, a true-hearted and generous champion of Alwyn and his music; only the small-minded pedant in me kicks against an isolated 'comprised of'. This disc has been recorded with financial assistance from the William Alwyn Foundation. The experience and skills of recording producer, Siva Oke and engineer, Paul Arden-Taylor are fully in evidence in sound that has both bloom and bite. The performances are unwaveringly thoughtful and committed.

Somm are no strangers to Alwyn. They invaluably issued the Beecham-conducted premiere of the Third Symphony as well as Mark Bebbington's fine selection of the piano music with many recording firsts.

Let us hope that the earlier eight quartets will be recorded. We live in a world where early and even school-boy works are appearing - and why not. Next thing you know Britten's schooldays' tone-poem Chaos and Cosmos and two enormous symphonies will put in an appearance.

Rob Barnett

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