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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
CD 1
Mirages, A Song Cycle for Baritone and Piano (1970) [27:10]
Divertimento for Solo Flute (1939) [13:35]
Naiades, Fantasy-Sonata for Flute and Harp (1971) [12:53]
CD 2
Fantasy-Waltzes (1956) [33:25]*†
Sonata alla Toccata (1937) [11:38]*†
Benjamin Luxon (baritone); David Willison (piano); Christopher Hyde-Smith (flute); Marisa Robles (harp); * Sheila Randell (piano)
rec. ADD † mono recordings, 1959, 1971
2 CDs for the price of 1
Originally issued on LP as SRCS 61 (CD1); RCS 16 (CD2)
LYRITA SRCD.293 [53:43 + 45:11]

Experience Classicsonline


I well remember where I bought the original 1959 Lyrita release of the Alwyn piano music – it was at pre-Fayed Harrods in about 1976. Quite why they had copies of this ‘specialist’ LP in their record browsers has always been a minor mystery to me! But to compound the situation, I had great pressure put on my laddish wallet – for next to this album were those other Lyrita gems- piano music by William Wordsworth and Franz Riezenstein. It ended up quite a haul and I could not possess myself in patience to get back to Glasgow to spin them on the turntable. I cannot now quite recall my reaction – though I do remember being seriously impressed by Wordsworth’s Cheesecombe Suite. But that is another story and another review.

I had discovered William Alwyn a few months earlier when I had heard the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Isle. Even after all these years I can recall what impressed me about that work – it was the perfect equilibrium between ‘modern’ music and an almost ‘film-like’ romanticism. The Fantasy Waltzes are full of this balance between contemporary and retro. It was written after Alwyn had visited Grieg’s lakeside home at Troldhaugen near Bergen. Originally the intention was to compose a short suite of ‘salon’ style pieces rather in the manner of one of the Norwegian master’s collections of Lyric Pieces. However it soon became much greater than the sum of the parts: it is a long work, lasting some 33 minutes.

Unusually for Alwyn at this period the Waltzes are not based on a tone row – they are written in a ‘free and virtuosic’ style. Listening to these pieces once again I am impressed by their ‘unity in diversity’. It would be easy to play spot the allusion or hunt the genre. Most of the work is written in an approachable ‘romantic’ style – but there are nods to earlier more classical based models. The ghosts of Ravel, Rachmaninov, Chopin and Johann Strauss are never too far away. Interestingly Rob Barnett notes some affiliation with Leopold Godowsky. This is surely appropriate.

This is a great work: it deserves to be seen as one of the more important British solo works for piano. The original mono tapes from 1959 have been ‘re-pristinated’ well. There are other versions of this work available – including Ashley Wass on Naxos 8570359, John Ogdon on CHAN8399 and Julian Milford on CHAN9825.

I never quite took to the Sonata alla Toccata. It is one of those pieces that challenge me to state why it is not a ‘favourite.’ I suppose I am led to the opinion of the late Harold Truscott who wrote that "this work is neither a sonata nor a toccata. It is all that can be expected from the stylised conventions of the Modern English School. I am afraid its heart is as synthetic as its title."

Alwyn himself claimed that he wrote this work for pure enjoyment – it was not a commission. It has been suggested that this piece, composed in 1946 was a ‘thanksgiving’ for the cessation of hostilities, yet the intense and beautiful middle ‘andante’ is surely an elegy – perhaps lamenting those who did not survive. The first and last movements are full of life and fun and power and strength.

One last point – whatever happened to Sheila Randell? Nothing shows up on Google: perhaps this was her one recording?

Turning to the first but chronologically later CD I have to admit that these three works have never been in my list of favourites. Naturally I bought the original ‘vinyl’ thirty odd years ago – but somehow I never quite ‘got into’ these pieces. It is often the case that music for solo wind instruments is devised simply to prove how good the player is as opposed to creating a work of art and maintaining interest. The Divertimento falls into this category. Yet there is much in this ‘pastoral’ - in a Theocritan sense - that rises above the purely technical. There are four movements each exploiting a feature of flute playing including pseudo-part writing and what sometimes appears to be double-stopping! It was composed in 1939 and represents one of the relatively few works by Alwyn to survive from before the Second World War.

Revisiting Naiades - Fantasy Sonata has been an interesting experience. I first encountered it before I had heard music by Poulenc and Malcolm Arnold. I am not suggesting that these composers are models or even influences. But there is a ‘Francophile’ feel about the piece and also certain turns of phrase that seem to nod to that other Northampton composer! I imagine that way back then I was looking for an English pastoral work. What Alwyn has written is a ‘Greek pastoral’ seen through French eyes with Ravel’s shadow in the background. As such it is entirely successful. It was written for the husband and wife team of Christopher Hyde-Smith and Marisa Robles who perform it well here.

Benjamin Luxon’s voice is just perfect for these attractive and imaginative songs. There is little here that challenges the ear. Written in 1970 these songs were and remain quite conservative in their musical language. The texts – which are printed in the ‘sleeve-notes’- were written by the composer. Those that know about Alwyn will realise that he was a composer, a poet and an artist so it is no surprise that these songs are a good balance of words and music. The poems were actually written as ‘literature in their own right’ – being published in a ‘slim volume’ – and illustrated by the author’s own line-drawings.

The first poem, Undine, is ‘watery’ and perhaps suggests Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. This is a long setting – running to some ten pages of music. Aquarium is very slow and deliberate. Honeysuckle is another love poem – it has been well described as having an ‘erotic passion’. In this sense it relates to the first song yet the vocal line and the piano accompaniment are totally different in style to Undine. Metronome is a dark reflection on death and the passing of time: ‘When I am gone, will time still beat or will the metronome run down’. The last line is particularly depressing: "Unthinkable that I should die and let the works live on.’ Not music to listen to after a bad day at the office! Paradise is exciting music yet it is a continuation of the preceding song. This is the shortest in the cycle, lasting just over a minute. The proceedings are brought to a close with Portrait in a Mirror. It is the poem of an old man looking at himself in the mirror and wondering just who that person is with "lips drawn back from dog-eared teeth." Yet all is not despair – the poem ends with the optimistic view that "the face that peers back at me/so old – so very old- with eyes innocent as a child." This is another long song with a considerable piano prelude and postlude. Rob Barnett suggests that this song is a different ‘take’ on the Hardy poem "I look into my glass." The song cycle Mirages is one of those pieces that I do not like – but I recognise it as a masterpiece. The singing here is perfect in every detail.

It is great that Lyrita have re-issued this fine music. All five works are important and vital to any understanding of William Alwyn’s musical and poetic career. I tend to listen to his symphonies and chamber works on a regular basis – yet, from time to time it is good to consider other works from his catalogue.

John France

see also review from Rob Barnett

The Alwyn Website




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