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Jonathan Woolf
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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Early String Quartets
String Quartet No. 6 in E minor (1927) [20:02]
String Quartet No. 7 in A (1929) [20:46]
String Quartet No. 8 in D minor (1931) [12:42]
String Quartet No. 9 in one movement (1931) [13:11]
Seven Irish Tunes for string quartet (1923) [8:56]
Villiers Quartet
rec. 2019, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
LYRITA SRCD.386 [73:35]

This fine disc was already reviewed by my colleagues Jonathan Woolf and John France. The first gave extensive descriptions of the works, the second an in-depth analysis of their place in William Alwyn’s development. I agree completely with their assessment of this disc, I will only describe my own reactions to this release.

The string quartet form fascinated Alwyn throughout his life. He wrote seventeen between the ages of fifteen and eighty. The last three, the “Alwyn Quartets” recorded before, have been reviewed by John France and Brian Wilson. In 2017 the Tippett Quartet recorded Nos. 10-13 of the early quartets, reviewed by Rob Barnett. Now we have Nos. 6-9. They demonstrate, as did those on the Tippett Quartet disc, that whatever the composer’s negative view of the early quartets, they contain much music of value.

The reader may notice that Quartet No. 7 is first on the disc rather than the earlier No. 6. The reason for this becomes clear when one has listened to both quartets. No. 7 starts out strongly, reminding one more than a little of Shostakovich’s early quartets. The passacaglia second movement is equally impressive, but becomes progressively more austere. The succeeding Rondo features a beautiful cello motif, cleverly developed. The final movement, Retrospect, emphasizes the E-minor home key in an original way; the coda, incorporating material from the preceding movements, shows real depth.

The Quartet No. 6 reminds one of Moeran or perhaps Alwyn’s teacher, Sir John McEwen, to whom No. 7 is dedicated, and who himself also wrote seventeen quartets. The piece is pastoral throughout, from the moderato first movement, with a beautiful central section, to the short Interlude and Scherzo. The last movement is a stimulating Theme and Variations with an exceptionally good Finale.

In the eighth quartet Alwyn consolidates elements of its two predecessors while experimenting with questions of form. The piece is in seven sections (tracks 9-11), six of which are quite brief but they demonstrate a wide variety of mood and tempo, as Alwyn ingeniously develops his opening material. The last section, the length of the preceding six, demonstrates the same ability to sum up a work’s material that Alwyn showed in Quartet No. 7.

In the ninth quartet Alwyn takes a totally different tack. As long-time Alwyn (and Rawsthorne) expert Andrew Knowles points out in his excellent notes, the ninth is really a tone-poem deriving from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, specifically from Act 5, Scene 3-Romeo’s death. The quartet’s expressivity may remind listeners of the composer’s film music rather than of the previous three quartets. But all of the drama of this scene is distilled into quartet form, and the mournful middle section is especially notable. The compression of material is even more skillful than in Quartet No. 8. The quartet dies away at the end-a fitting coda.

The Villiers Quartet deserves nothing but praise for their work on this recording. They show real verve in all the quartets, especially in No. 7, and the clarity of the contrapuntal lines throughout the performances is exceptional. Each member of the quartet contributes beautiful solo work when called upon. The acoustic at Wyastone Leys again demonstrates its fine qualities, especially for chamber music. These recordings were made before James Dickenson left the Villiers Quartet and are a fitting tribute to his time with them. This disc is essential for all those interested in Alwyn, and a fine example of performance and recording into the bargain.

William Kreindler

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf ~ John France

James Dickenson (violin), Tamaki Higashi (violin), Carmen Flores (viola), Nick Stringfellow (cello)

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