CD Review

William Alwyn (1905 ~ 1985)

The Renaissance Man


© Chris Green, September 2009


  William Alwyn(selfportrait - 1978)

Tucked away down a quiet Suffolk country lane I found the home of William and Mary Alwyn (aka Dorothy Carwithen). I had long known him through some of his lighter orchestral music and piano pieces that were included on many occasions for the examinations held by one of the UKs leading Music Examinations Boards. Now, I was sitting in his living room overlooking the River Blythe, as we talked about his many passions- music, of course, but then writing poetry and painting. He had a collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings which would have attracted much interest if the fact had been broadcast, but he was keen it should not be.

By now, William Alwyn was frail, but he shared his views of his music with me in a broadcast which, sometime later, was referred to in a biography of him. For too long, his music for the concert hall was neglected at the expense of some of his contemporaries including Benjamin Britten, whom he knew well. Britten appeared to be no friend to his near contemporary and neighbour and, if I recall correctly, it was only after Alwyn's death that there was music by him featured in a Snape concert.

But looking on the positive side, Naxos Records have done such a splendid job in championing his music with a series of CDs featuring his symphonic music, and a quartet that I am featuring now ranging from some fine songs that should feature in the repertoire more often, three string quartets, various chamber works for strings and piano, and orchestral music. Let me start with the latter for the seven works include the suite of Scottish Dances composed in 1946, and which were amongst the first works my Trianon Music Group first performed. Only very recently, John Rutter remarked to me that he had never heard Alwyn's Elizabethan Dances. Having heard Trianon perform them, he remarked that they were "rather good".


There is a vitality to Alwyn's music both in terms of the colourations and rhythms and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Concerto Grosso No 1 with its Stravinsky-overtones. Contrast that with the eloquence of the lyrical writing for viola and orchestra in the Pastorale Fantasia (1939). Whichever corner one turns, there is something rather splendid about the writing, and fully realised in the recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos 8.570704).

The Maggini Quartet is amongst the finest of the contemporary bunch and their recording of Alwyn's three string quartets composed between 1953 and 1984, a year before Alwyn's death, benefits from the excellent acoustics of Suffolk's Potton Hall, Westleton where many of the chamber works have been recorded. All of the three quartets come in at around 20 minutes in length and highlight another aspect of Alwyn's compositional debt- this time to Czech composers (Naxos 8.570560).

Potton Hall provides the location for singers and pianist Iain Burnside in worlds premiers of a number of song cycles by Alwyn. Jeremy Huw-Williams is sure-voiced as a baritone and Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) makes a good job of some of the songs, but here piping tone can be rather wearing. Her high soprano voice lacks the more subtler timbres that the verse requires, but again this is as fine an introduction to this genre as one might expect (Naxos 8.570201).

So to the last of the quartet and another featuring some of the same performers. It includes a Rhapsody for Piano Quartet, works for violin and viola as well as song settings, but the item that really caught my attention in this year when I have been joining others in celebrating special birthdays is the very short and sweet Chaconne for Tom for Treble Recorder and Piano which features a tune known the world over as "Happy Birthday to You". The recorder and viola seem to be amongst Alwyn's favourite instruments, and I wonder whether he wrote anything for that combination. If so, I bet it would be fun to hear (Naxos 8.570340).


William Alwyn (sitting in the middle) at one of Lyrita's a recording sessions