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William Alwyn: Early String Quartets



Named after Villiers Street in London's colourful musical epicentre, the Villiers Quartet encompasses the grand and iconic spirit of the extraordinary music tradition in London. Hailed as one of the most charismatic and "adventurous" quartets of the European chamber music scene The Strad, the Villiers Quartet has developed an international reputation for its performances of British music.

Alwyn’s musical style is in the main of a romantic nature firmly grounded in tonality, notwithstanding some forays into modernity, calling on dissonance and freedom of from when he felt the need. This approach can be keenly felt in the works included on this disc, all of which were completed when he was aged between eighteen and twenty-five. The medium of the string quartet held a long and lasting fascination for Alwyn, which began during the earliest years of his composing career. He was to compose a total of sixteen string quartets between the years 1920 and 1984. Alwyn considered that the string quartet was the ‘most intimate of mediums’ and revelled in the challenge to provide interesting material in which to balance the four instruments. The sixteen string quartets that he was to compose can be divided into two groups; the first thirteen quartets were composed between 1920 and 1936, and the last three quartets were composed between 1953 and 1984.

William Alwyn: Early String Quartets


Alwyn admirers have reason to be grateful to Lyrita, as it continues to expand the composer’s discography. The triumphant recent revival of Miss Julie must remind listeners of Vilém Tauský’s recording on the label, as well as the composer-directed symphony cycle (SRCD.227 and 228), and the orchestral sequences on SRCD.229 and 230 (the latter with the lovely Lyra Angelica).

Whether by accident or design Alwyn wrote 16 string quartets between 1920 and 1984, the same number as his teacher at the Royal Academy, John McEwen. But his early String Quartets are almost unknown elements of Alwyn’s compositional life. What most will assume to be his existing body of quartets is the series of three such works written in 1953, 1975 and 1984; that is, String Quartets 1, 2 and 3. In the light of this current recording, I wonder if a reordering process will be necessary, and whether those mature works will be renumbered Nos. 14-16. Perhaps this series will pursue that point, and Andrew Knowles, so closely associated with Alwyn’s music – and who writes the splendid booklet notes here – might also be in a position to confirm what the state of play is now.

These premiere recordings reveal youthful flirtations with structure and texture. No.6, dedicated to McEwen in 1927, divides into four movements, the outer ones being reasonably sized but housing two very brief inner movements, an Interlude and a Scherzo. There’s a slightly melancholic fluidity to the opening music and the Interlude sounds decidedly Bridge-like in places. The Scherzo shows one of the few really overt uses of folkloric influence in these particular quartets whilst the final movement explores Alwyn’s interest in variation form. The variations are well contrasted and youthfully vigorous - there’s one especially zesty section – as well as some forlorn-sounding senza vibrato writing.

The Seventh Quartet followed two years later. The structure here is two short movements followed by a longer one then a retrospective kind of finale that lasts almost as long as the three earlier ones put together. Themes can be halting and spare, within a similar basic tempo, for much of this quartet but the finale has some romantic and beautifully calibrated writing, an elegant and slow movement at reduced dynamics. The multi-movement Eighth Quartet followed in 1931. Its chromaticism is striking and so too is its shape, six very brief movements topped by a finale that is as long as the six preceding sections, and which has plenty of changes of mood and metre. Composed in just one movement this time – one feels Alwyn constantly trying out new ideas and forms of proportion in these early works - No.9 followed later the same year. Bearing a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet its romantic and introspective elements – still, concentrated, focused – clearly evoke a narrative. The earliest piece here is the engaging Seven Irish Tunes, for string quartet, written in 1923 when Alwyn was 18, though he was to return to it, with minor changes, in 1936 when he arranged it as an orchestral suite.

In the Alwyn Catalogue, written by Stewart Craggs and Alan Poulton they note timings for these early quartets that differ markedly from the performances by the Villiers Quartet. Nos.6 and 7 for example are noted as lasting 30 minutes but the recordings are ten minutes quicker. The Irish tunes are also much quicker in performance though I can’t find any reference to the Eighth and Ninth Quartets in the catalogue. Given that these works may well not have been performed at the time – Nos. 8 and 9 were performed in 2018 by the Villiers – the timings were presumably an estimate.

These are conspicuously sensitive performances that respond to every facet of the composer’s writing. It’s often at its most personal when most introspective and the quartet’s control of dynamic levels proves invaluable in these passages and movements. Some distinctive Alwyn touches can certainly be felt though he has yet fully to shape his material into truly coherent forms. Nevertheless, these early works offer a striking insight into his progress as a composer for chamber forces.