William Alwyn: Mirages, Naiades / Luxon, Willison

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A neglected corner of the Alwyn heritage rewardingly explored.

Alwyn the polymath: artist, author, composer. Among these gifts music came foremost. The other skills drew on and were even the servants of the music. Writing for the cinema inculcated in him a discipline of writing to very specific mood and time constraints. Cinema paid the bills and allowed a lifestyle and, later in life, a recording programme only dreamt of by most other composers of his generation. The screen connection also meted out a punishment in that success resulted in deprecation for his concert works. The artistic hegemony in the period 1950-75 found his tonal-melodic style anathema and let him know it.

Mirages is a song-cycle for baritone and piano. Benjamin Luxon is here captured in vocal heyday. Long and sustained notes are sung quietly without a trace of beat. The poems are by Alwyn and were published in a collection with his own line drawings. These are songs of darkling beauty – a common theme being night and twilight. Only in Honeysuckle, the third song, are the moods and exultation of the English lyric masters referenced. More typical are the grim lines and finally the thrawn protest of Metronome. Excitement bursts free from Paradise - nothing of Cyril Scott's oozing ecstasy. This is a nocturnal witch-ride on the wings of a hurricane. Then comes a different take on Hardy's actress caught gazing into a mirror - here we have the musings of the composer on his elderly face gazing back from the mirror ‘redeemed’ only by the child-innocent eyes.

The Divertimento is for solo flute, the instrument with which Alwyn made his living in the 1930s and 1940s. René Le Roy performed it to enduring success at the 1941 ISCM Festival in New York. It has the gamin playfulness and seraphic smile of the Bach suites. Only the outer sections seem unequivocally to come from the 20th century.

Naiades places flute with harp in a work subtitled ‘Fantasy-Sonata’, written for husband and wife duo Christopher Hyde-Smith and Marisa Robles. This is an intensely Gallic-perfumed piece, warm and from some classic Arcady. It is a close cousin to the Ravel Introduction and Allegro and to Bax's Elegiac Trio.

The second CD takes us back to the very earliest days of Lyrita, recorded in the Itter home in Burnham. The half-hour-long Fantasy-Waltz sequence is dedicated to Richard Farrell, the NZ pianist killed in a car crash in 1958. The eleven waltzes are varied, angular, fantastic impressions often suggestive of liquid gesture and movement. Some, such as the ballroom candour of the Allegro Giocoso (6), the Vivace (8) and the In tempo piacevole (10) step outside these boundaries and dally with Godowsky but with style-Alwyn calling the shots. In the earlier sonata Alla Toccata the expected neo-classical casing is to be found in the outer movements with a touch of Lambert here and Prokofiev there. The central sleepyhead Andante has the gorgeous romance of the Lento of the Classical Symphony. The Fantasy-Waltzes have been recorded twice before on Chandos: on CHAN8399 by John Ogdon and latterly by Julian Milford on CHAN9825. The coupling is different in each case (more Alwyn though!) and only the Lyrita takes you back to the label’s earliest days and includes the chamber works as well – all for the price of a single premium price disc.

The mono sound has been well preserved and presented in the case of the piano solos. This serves to whet appetites for Lyrita’s complete Ireland and Bax – not to mention other treasures including the Moeran, White and Jacob. The Decca-engineered 1970s stereo disc is as good as the reputation would lead you to expect.

The notes, in English only, are from the original vinyls and are by William Mann and Joan Chissell.

-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SRCD293

  • UPC: 5020926029324

  • Label: Lyrita

  • Composer: William Alwyn

  • Performer: Benjamin Luxon, Christopher Hyde-Smith, David Willison, Marisa Robles, Sheila Randell