Most American concert-goers have never heard a single note of William Alwyn's music in the concert hall. But one was familiar with his style from his many film scores, often for Carol Reed movies such as 'Odd Man Out', 'The Fallen Idol' and 'The Running Man'. It came as a bit of a shock some thirty years or so ago -- largely as a result of the groundbreaking series of issues from the Lyrita label -- to learn that Alwyn was an extraordinarily prolific composer of concert music in all genres. Music seemed to flow out of him. And one has yet to encounter a work that was not worth hearing, some of it for the ages. Associated with stylish craft, impeccable contrapuntal skill and an unfailing melodic gift, his music rarely fails to please even the first-time listener. This CD contains a miscellany of chamber music, all of it worthwhile.
Alwyn suppressed all his music written before about 1940 but there are several earlier works here -- the Rhapsody for Piano Quartet (1938-39), the Sonata Impromptu for Violin and Viola (1939-1940), the Ballade for Violin and Piano (1939), Two Songs for Voice, Violin and Piano (1931), Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1933) -- and each has something to recommend it. Indeed, of all the works here I was most taken with the Sonata Impromptu for the unusual combination of violin and viola; it ranks with the best things ever written for this combination. It is in three movements, each with extraordinarily assured contrapuntal writing aligned with pleasing and memorable themes. And it is given a simply sensational performance by Madeleine Mitchell, violin, and Roger Chase, viola. Chase, sensitively accompanied by pianist Andrew Ball, gives an equally satisfying performance of the lovely Ballade for Viola and Piano. Ball is an equal partner with Mitchell in the ten-minute-long Sonatina for Violin and Piano, a three-movement Ravel-influenced work whose serenely childlike middle movement is particularly lovely.
Three Winter Poems for String Quartet was written after the War and predates his so-named First String Quartet by five years. There is a hint of astringence and a sense of despair in this work, in contrast to the generally sunny qualities of the earlier works. The three movements are subtitled 'Winter Landscape', 'Frozen Waters', and 'Snow Shower.' Apparently this impressive nine-minute work never received a performance during Alwyn's lifetime, having to wait until 2005 for its première in Manchester. One hopes it is taken up by other quartets.
There are two, to my mind, rather less impressive works here, namely the two short sets of songs, somewhat marred by the unsettled voice of the baritone soloist, and the trifling 'Chaconne for Tom', the latter a set of variations on 'Happy Birthday to You' for treble recorder and piano. Together they amount to only about twelve minutes out of this 70 minute CD.
One cannot praise enough the industry and art of those responsible for this issue. This music, similar in its British way to music of Samuel Barber, deserves to be heard. This CD is a welcome addition to the ongoing series of Alwyn discs being issued by Naxos which themselves complement the classic recordings from Lyrita.