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William ALWYN (1905-1985)
String Quartet No.1 in d minor (1953) [23:07]
String Quartet No.2 ‘Spring Waters’ (1975) [20:24]
String Quartet No.3 (1984) [22:47]
Novelette (1938/9) [2:35]
Maggini Quartet (Lorraine McAslan, David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola); Michal Kaznowski (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK, 9-11 December, 2007. DDD.
NAXOS 8.570560 [68:53]
Experience Classicsonline

This new recording continues the Maggini Quartet’s sterling services to 20th-century English music – I recommend their recording of the Vaughan Williams Quartets, for example, as wholeheartedly as did my Musicweb colleagues in 2001 (8.555300 – see review).   It also continues Naxos’s commitment to the music of William Alwyn, a composer whose qualities have unfortunately been overshadowed by his better-known contemporaries.
 
Alwyn’s first numbered quartet dates from 1953, though it had been preceded by several earlier experiments.  It’s the most approachable of the three; the blurb promises echoes of Dvořák, Janáček and Smetana, and these are certainly to be found, though, as the same blurb acknowledges, this is a thoroughly original work.  The slow movement is particularly attractive and it benefits here from a marginally slower tempo than on the Quartet of London’s version (see below).
 
There’s no need for those averse to atonality to have any fear in approaching this music.  In the early 1950s, with the lifting of post-war rationing, the Festival of Britain and the Coronation, it was again possible to feel optimistic and this mood is reflected in the music.  If you’ve already made the acquaintance of Alwyn’s first three symphonies and enjoyed them, you should like what you hear in this quartet.
 
If you don't yet know the symphonies, I'd make their acquaintance first, in Naxos's own recordings or those on Lyrita and Chandos.  David Lloyd-Jones offers accounts of Nos. 1 and 3 (Naxos 8.557648), Nos. 2 and 5 (8.557647 with the Harp Concerto Lyra Angelica) and No.4 (8.557649 with Sinfonietta – a Bargain of the Month; see review) which I haven’t heard but which have been generally praised.  My own favourites are Alwyn’s own recordings on Lyrita (1 and 4 on SRCD.227 – see review; 2, 3 and 5 on SRCD.228 – see review).  I’ve owned the former ever since I bought it on impulse in the only shop which then supplied Lyrita recordings and I recommended the eMusic download of the latter in my December 2008 Download Roundup.
 
Chandos also have a fine set of Richard Hickox recordings of Alwyn’s orchestral music, with all five symphonies and the Sinfonietta on CHAN9429 (3 CDs) or separately, coupled with the Elizabethan Dances, Piano Concertos and Violin Concerto.  I hope to explore at least some of these Hickox/Alwyn recordings in forthcoming instalments of my Download Roundup.
 
The Second Quartet of 1975 is a much more troubled work – the Spring Waters of the title are troubled waters.  It’s very tempting to see the music as indicative of a 70-year-old undergoing a late mid-life crisis, though Alwyn insisted that this was an abstract composition – but, then, I find the denial of Tolkien and Vaughan Williams of the influence of World War II on their works hard to reconcile with what I see and hear.
 
It may take you a while to come to terms with this quartet, as it did me – the experience was somewhat akin to my first encounter with the late Beethoven quartets, with the Budapest Quartet’s CBS stereo remake of Op.127.  The playing of the Maggini Quartets is far less steely than that CBS recording, but the music is equally elusive the first time round.  Second time around, I found that I connected with the idiom more readily.
 
These first two quartets were recorded by the Quartet of London in 1984, a Chandos recording (CHAN9219 – see review) still available as an mp3 or lossless download from theclassicalshop.net – the CD appears to have been deleted.  Though the composer himself was present at the recording sessions and the cover illustration is a painting by Alwyn himself, there is little reason to prefer those performances to those of the Magginis – and, at 45 minutes, the recording is poor value by comparison with this Naxos version.  With the exception of the slow movement of the first quartet which, I felt, benefits from the marginally slower version of the Magginis (4:07 against 3:57) and the finale of the second (just one second difference), the Chandos performances are consistently slightly slower than these new versions.
 
It was during attendance at the Chandos recording sessions that Alwyn decided upon his final quartet, a much quieter and more elegiac work, though, again, it took me two hearings to engage with it.  The Quartet of London subsequently recorded this quartet, too, coupled with the Rhapsody of 1938 and the String Trio (CHAN8440, mp3 or lossless download only; again, rather short value at 49 minutes – see review).  The tempi on the new Maggini version are, again, marginally faster than those on the Chandos disc but I never felt that this was to the music’s disadvantage.
 
The finale of the third quartet would have made a fitting conclusion to the CD but Naxos’s decision to append the approachable, but far from bland, Novelette of 1938/9, offers a better ending.
 
With sympathetic performances throughout, good recording, helpful notes and, as usual, a thoroughly appropriate cover picture, this version of the quartets is well worth investigating – but do try the symphonies first.
 
Brian Wilson

see also review by John France

 


 


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