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Jonathan Woolf
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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
String Quartet No.7 in A (1927) [20:46]
String Quartet No.6 in E minor (1929) [20:02]
String Quartet No.8 in D minor (1931) [12:42]
Seven Irish Tunes, for string quartet (1923) [8:56]
String Quartet No.9 in one movement (1931) [13:11]
Villiers Quartet
rec. 2019, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
LYRITA SRCD386 [73:35]

My colleague Jonathan Woolf recently gave an excellent and detailed review of this new Lyrita disc. Included were some excellent descriptions and evaluations of each quartet. I found that I agree wholeheartedly with his assessments. I do not wish to repeat what has already been better said, so I intend take a step back and try to do a little bit of personal contextualisation of this CD.

I first discovered William Alwyn’s music by way of the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island around 1972. This work, along with the remarkable Symphony No.3, was included on a Lyrita LP (SRCS.63) and was featured during the weekly Record Review on BBC Radio 3. As suggested by the title, I was ‘bewitched’ by this music and immediately rushed out to buy the album at Cuthbertson’s record shop in Glasgow (closed now for many years). This Tempest-inspired tone-poem has remained my favourite Alwyn work ever since.

In the 1970s there were precious few records devoted to Alwyn’s music. The notable exception being several releases from that great champion of British music, Richard Itter and his Lyrita label. To be fair, Unicorn (UNS 241) had issued the Gabrieli Quartet’s account of the String Quartet in D minor (No.1) and the String Trio in 1971. Since that time, a vast quantity of Alwyn’s music has been released, including three complete cycles of the Symphonies (Lyrita, Chandos and Naxos). It is fair to say that most of Alwyn’s orchestral music, from the early days to his final thoughts, has been recorded. Much of his chamber and instrumental music has been issued as well as his operatic masterpiece Miss Julie. Over the years, four volumes of Alwyn’s film music have appeared. All this music is typically featured on the above-mentioned record labels, but not forgetting Dutton Epoch, Somm and the defunct White Line

In those early days (1970s) I tried to find out as much about William Alwyn as I could. One of the ‘scholarly’ canards at this time was that virtually all the composer’s early works had been destroyed. Not knowing any better I believed this. In fact, the earliest ‘admitted’ work was, I think, the Rhapsody for violin, viola, cello and piano (1939).

In 1985 Bravura Publications published William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music, compiled by Stewart Craggs and Alan Poulton. I was lucky to find a copy, as I understand that it was a [very] limited edition. I was amazed at the vast amount of music that Alwyn had written prior to this above-mentioned Rhapsody. Exploring the catalogue’s section on chamber music was a revelation. Starting at the very early Sparkling Cascades for solo piccolo (1913) there were some three pages of pre-war works listed. This includes Sonatas and Sonatinas, arrangements of folk songs and spirituals, a Fantasia and a Phantasy for string ensembles and a tantalisingly titled tone poem ‘On Milton Hill’ for flute, oboe and piano. But most remarkable of all, were the reference to thirteen ‘early’ and unpublished string quartets, albeit several lacking entries.

The medium of the string quartet had inspired William Alwyn for his entire life. His first essay in this form was SQ No.0 in G minor which dates from 1920 and was composed when he was only 15 years old. The final work in this genre, the ‘official’ SQ No.3 was completed in 1984, the year before the composer’s death.

Fast forward to 2011 and the publication of John C Dressler’s William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge). What I guess had been known to Alwyn scholars became common knowledge. The composer had not been as assiduous as imagined in destroying his ‘early horrors.’ In fact, the manuscripts for most of the chamber works are securely housed in the Alwyn Archive.

In 2017 SOMM Records (CD 0165) issued a ground-breaking recording of Alwyn’s String Quartet’s Nos. 10-13, clearly relying on some detailed musical archaeology from the archive. This was reviewed for MusicWeb International by Rob Barnett. I am not sure if this release was meant to be the first instalment of a ‘complete’ cycle. The present Lyrita disc explores String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9 as well as the delightful Seven Irish Tunes. It means that we are now shy of the first five examples to complete the cycle. Looking at Dressler’s Catalogue makes one wonder if this will be possible. Certainly, the holograph for No.5 has been lost. The score for No.0 would appear to be incomplete: the others seem to be in manuscript. To what extent reconstruction and realisation would be possible remains to be seen.

Based on the eight early quartets that I have heard, there does seem to be a case for renumbering. Jonathan Woolf has suggested that they be cited as 1-16, with the three post war quartets (No.1 in D minor (1953), No.2 ‘Spring Waters; (1975) and No.3 (1984)) renumbered from 1, 2 and 3 to 14, 15 and 16 respectively. I guess that problems may arise because No.5 is missing, and the earliest example is given as No.0. But greater difficulties have been overcome. Certainly, the early string quartets composed between 1920 and 1936 deserve their place in the catalogue and on CD. Whether these works will ever gain a hearing in the recital room remains an open question. I somehow doubt it.

Meanwhile this latest addition to the growing catalogue of William Alwyn’s music is essential for all enthusiasts of the composer, and of great interest for those who are devoted to British music and/or the string quartet genre. It is splendidly recorded and convincingly played by the Villiers Quartet.

John France
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Villiers Quartet members: James Dickenson (violin), Tamaki Higashi (violin), Carmen Flores (viola), Nick Stringfellow (cello)

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