William Alwyn: Chamber Music

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A good insight to the composer’s musical development.

I would suggest that an interesting approach to this CD is to listen to the works in chronological order. The music presented spans nearly thirty years and gives a good insight to the composer’s musical development over that period. It is an often-stated fact that William Alwyn drew a line under his musical development in 1939, largely disowning his previous works. Even the briefest of glances at the catalogue of his music published by Stewart Craggs and Alan Poulton in 1985 or Andrew Knowles’ listings in The Innumerable Dance by Adrian Wright show a huge number of works that fell foul of his desire to make a new beginning. In fact, the chamber works seem hardest hit by this momentous decision. Fortunately, for Alwyn enthusiasts, a number of these early and seemingly lost pieces have been gradually emerging from obscurity. Recently, Dutton released the tone-poem Blackdown and the Peter Pan Suite; Naxos have given the listener a number of early pieces including Aphrodite in Aulis - An Eclogue for small orchestra after George Moore, and the Five Preludes. Some early piano music has also been rediscovered including the charming, but rather difficult Cricketty Mill.

The present CD includes one attractive and important work from prior to 1939 – the pastorally-inclined Oboe Sonata and also a world premiere recording of the Viola Sonatina (1941). Apart from this ‘first’ all the other pieces are available in rival recordings by Chandos.

William Alwyn’s Oboe Sonata was first heard at the Royal Academy of Music in a recital by Helen and Lillian Gaskell. The Times reviewer was suitably impressed and suggested that the work was ‘euphonious and agreeable without sounding old fashioned’ and that it was a ‘true sonata’ that gave each instrument a share in the progress of the music.

The Oboe Sonata is written in three unbalanced movements with the first being as long as the second and third together. The opening bars of the ‘moderato e grazioso’ provide much of the material for the entire work. I have always been struck by the fact that much of this movement seems to defy the ‘grazioso’ instruction. In fact, there is a lot here that is slow and reflective and quite introverted. Certainly this is pastoral music at its best: without being in any way a cliché.

The second movement is a chorale-like ‘andantino’ which really prolongs the mood of the first movement. There is a lovely tune here that is given in dialogue between piano and oboe. The final movement is a lively little waltz which most definitely has a ‘French feel’ to it. The coda, however, is rather restrained and brings the work to a quiet close. The work typifies the composer’s ability to write ‘easy flowing melodies’ and music that is eminently satisfying for both the players and the listener.

Finally, strange as it may appear to listeners in the 21st century; the Oboe Sonata caught the imagination of the general public during the 1930s and was even included in the BBC Radio Programme –‘Your Choice of the Week’.

The Viola Sonatina is the next work chronologically: it is a world premiere recording. My first reaction is that this is a sonata in all but name. There is little here that would fulfil the common expectation of a ‘Sonatina’ being ‘easy to play’. The only concession to the form is the relatively short movements. The work was written in 1941 and was originally called a Short Suite, but the composer deleted this in the manuscript and wrote in the present name. There are four movements, a prelude, a dance, an aria and a finale. There is a depth to these movements that seems to belie their brevity. In fact the ‘aria’ is one of the loveliest things in Alwyn’s catalogue and leaves the listener wishing it would continue for more than three minutes. The opening ‘prelude’ is deep, reflective music which is not really lightened by the ‘dance’ which is played muted throughout. However the finale blows away care. This is exciting music that brings this Sonatina to a dynamic close. It is good that Alwyn enthusiasts should have this worthy piece in their collections.

Four years later, in 1945 wrote the diminutive Suite for Oboe and Harp. It was composed for Léon and Sidonie Goossens, who gave the first broadcast performance in November of that year. Alas the music is over all too soon. The opening ‘minuet’ has a feeling of sadness and regret that is not quite dispersed by the short ‘valse’ which follows. Yet even the ‘jig’ does not completely change the mood. Here there is a hint of Irish folksong, but also a touch of Celtic melancholy in the middle section. It is a lovely work which should be better known. I guess that it is the combination of harp and oboe that tells against its more frequent performance. Yet, it is this particular instrumentation that gives the work its charm.

Conversations had me confused. I knew that I had heard this piece on CD before. But I could find no reference to it in the record catalogues. It was then that I read Andrew Knowles sleeve-notes and discovered the solution to the problem. The original title of the piece was Music for Three Players which had been completed in November 1950. The work had been especially composed for the Claviano Trio, Arthur Pennington (violin), Reginald Kell (clarinet) and Richard Favell (piano). When the work was published some 46 year later it was renamed Conversations, which well reflects the composer’s idea that they were a kind of ‘conversazione’ between friends. The work consists of eight short pieces. Mary Alwyn wrote that ‘... the piano spans the discussion with the violin and clarinet adding their comments.’ The content or mood of this exchange of opinions include a ‘prelude’, a ‘romanza’ a ‘fughetta’ and a ‘carillon’. Please do not be put off by the seemingly ephemeral nature of this piece. It is an important work that has depth, variety and colour and often considerable beauty. And lastly, I suddenly realised where I had heard this work before: it was on the Chandos Volume 1 release of Alwyn’s chamber works. However, here it had been given its original name!

The String Trio seems to have a confusion of dates. Hubert Culot in a review on MusicWeb International dates it as 1962, as does Knowles/Wright in The Innumerable Dance. The composer in his notes used by Chandos cites the same date. However, Andrew Knowles, in the liner-notes and Poulton/Craggs in their catalogue give the ‘true’ date of 1959. The confusion probably arose because the work was not performed until three years later. The Trio was written at a time of considerable stress in the composer’s personal life and also at a time when he was experimenting with ‘short scale groups’ in his Third and Fourth Symphonies and the Twelve Preludes for Piano. The String Trio was commissioned by The South Western Arts Association and is dedicated to ‘The Ormonte Trio’ which gave the first performance on 13 March 1962.

The distance of nearly a decade does seem to have made a considerable difference to the sound-world utilised by the composer. For one thing, this work is constructed from a 12-note tone-row which is announced at the start of the piece but is then subdivided and used judiciously throughout the rest of the work. The Trio lasts for just over quarter of an hour and has four movements - an ‘allegro molto’, a molto vivace and a ‘cavatina’ and a final ‘allegro’. Interestingly the Poulton/Craggs catalogue lists this work as having three movements!

Hubert Culot has stated that this Trio is one of William Alwyn’s most important chamber works. He adds that it is a ‘compact work full of imagination and invention, of highly contrasted ideas, in which the conflicts are eventually washed away by the peaceful coda of the fourth movement.’

Finally, the listener should not be put off this work by any mention of series and tone-rows. William Alwyn never allows these compositional tools to dictate the direction of the work: he uses them to create something in his individual style. This is an attractive and often moving Trio that totally hides the ‘construction lines’ beneath sheer musicality and beauty.

The latest work presented on this CD is the Clarinet Sonata which was completed in Blythburgh, Suffolk in August 1962. It was written as a commission from the great clarinettist Thea King, although it was dedicated to Anthony Friese-Greene.

The Clarinet Sonata is a relatively short work, lasting some dozen or so minutes. It is written in a single movement: Alwyn himself typifies it as a ‘fantasy sonata’ which well defines the fluid, almost improvisatory nature of much of this music. Criticism has been made on the over-dependence of the opening gesture throughout the piece, resulting in ‘much empty rhetoric and vulgarity.’ This is an exaggeration, and with hindsight it appears that Alwyn has squared the circle of writing a piece that sounds ‘free’ yet is actually tightly controlled. Hugh Ottoway, writing in the August 1964 edition of the Musical Times writes that the work ‘displays three main facets of the instruments character - the flamboyant, the lyrical and the ejaculatory.’ It is a good summation of this work’s impact.

The first performance was apparently on 3 November 1962 at Leighton House, Kensington with Thea King (clarinet) and accompanied by Celia Arieli (piano) and not at the Chelsea Music Club in 1963 as stated by Poulton/Cragg.

I enjoyed this CD. Like most other Alwyn enthusiasts, I have the two fine Chandos CDs mentioned in the review above. It is a futile business to try to decide between these two editions. I guess I might suggest that Nicholas Daniel and Julius Drake had the edge with the lovely Oboe Sonata. But that would be to ignore insights brought to this piece by Sarah Francis. The Hermitage String Trio gives a fine account of the String Trio on the Naxos disc –but who can say that it is better than the excellent performance by the Quartet of London on Chandos. I conclude that I have to have all of these discs. It is a bit like saying who plays Beethoven piano sonatas better, Alfred Brendel or Daniel Barenboim. I would need both.

Finally, this Naxos release has the fine Viola Sonatina, which to my mind is well worth the price of the recording. Yet my favourite piece on this CD is the stunningly beautiful Oboe Sonata. I am just so glad that William Alwyn did not tear it up in 1939!

-- John France, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: August 31, 2010

  • Catalog Number: 8572425

  • UPC: 747313242573

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: William Alwyn

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Hermitage String Trio

  • Performer: Lucy Gould, Lucy Wakeford, Robert Plane, Sarah Francis, Sarah-Jane Bradley, Sophia Rahman