About this Recording
8.570464 - ALWYN, W.: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Wass) - 12 Preludes / Contes Barbares / Movements
English  German 

William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Piano Music, Volume 2


Alwyn’s approach to writing for the piano was essentially that of a romantic. Even though he experimented with neo-classicism in the First Piano Concerto and the Sonata alla Toccata, his piano music was born out of the tradition exemplified by Liszt and Rachmaninov, through to the impressionism inherent in the music of Debussy and Ravel. The spirit of John Ireland can also be felt, particularly in the smaller descriptive pieces. Influences aside, however, Alwyn found his own individual way in writing for the piano, as can be heard from the works presented here. His intuitive writing for the instrument resulted not just in virtuoso pieces for the concert hall, but also sensitive miniatures of a highly expressive nature, along with many educational pieces for examination purposes. As with the previous volume of piano music (8.570359) examples of all these will be found on this disc, with the following receiving their world première recordings: Hunter’s Moon, Two Irish Pieces, Contes Barbares (Barbaric Tales), Cinderella, and Water Lilies.

The Twelve Preludes, Alwyn’s penultimate concert work for piano solo, were composed in London between April and June 1958. At this time the composer was experimenting with short note groups each with a strong tonal centre. A different group of notes is used for each prelude, an idea that was explored to the full in the Third and Fourth Symphonies. Each of the preludes conveys varying moods exploring different areas of piano technique. The first is dreamy and reflective, the second turbulent and dramatic with a subdued and mysterious ending, the third simple and quiet, the fourth a study in rapid finger technique, the fifth is an elegy in memory of the young New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell (dedicatee and first performer of the Fantasy Waltzes) who was tragically killed in a car accident—the piece was written just a few days after his death (the original manuscript bears the inscription ‘in memoriam “Richard” May 27th 1958”). The sixth prelude is a very intense powerful study in rapid chordal writing, the seventh is meditative, suggesting the sounds of distant bells, the eighth is quiet and pastoral in mood, the ninth is of an elusive nature ultimately vanishing in an impressionistic haze, the tenth is intended as a study in delicacy of touch, the brief eleventh, based on three notes (D flat, E flat and F), is peaceful in mood, with the powerful and dramatic twelfth bringing the cycle to a triumphant and thunderous conclusion. The Twelve Preludes received their première in a BBC broadcast on 26 June 1959 by the Dutch pianist Cor de Groot.

Hunter’s Moon, a short cycle of three pieces, Midsummer Magic, The Darkening Wood, and Ride by Night, was written as examination pieces for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1932. The first two are dreamy and reflective, with the third providing an animated and lively conclusion. Surely each of these beguiling miniatures transcends that of mere examination pieces, so long after do the haunting melodies remain in the memory. Similarly, Two Irish Pieces, From the Countryside and Paddy the Fiddler, gentle lyricism followed by joyful exuberance, composed in 1926 and published by Oxford University Press as part of their Oxford Piano Series, are of the same ilk and would make welcome additions to any piano recital.

Contes Barbares – Barbaric Tales (Homage to Paul Gauguin) was started in London during 1930 and completed after a voyage in the South Pacific during 1933. The idea for this cycle of pieces must have germinated in Alwyn’s mind after he had seen Gauguin’s picture Manao Tupapau (She is Haunted by a Spirit or She Dreams of Returning), which depicts a girl lying in the dark in a melancholy atmosphere, terrified by the spirit of the dead, at the Leicester Galleries in 1928/9. Such was the power of the imagery on Alwyn, that by his own admission the painting was to haunt him all his life. Paul Gauguin spent two years (1894/5) on the tropical island of Tahiti, where, in addition to creating some of his best known paintings, he wrote a journal entitled “Noa Noa (Fragrance, Fragrance)” which is illustrated with a series of woodblocks, recounting his experiences of the people he met, their culture and general way of life. Alwyn chose to illustrate some of these Gauguin creations in musical terms as a cycle of seven highly evocative piano pieces: Auti te pape – Woman at the River, Le Vivo (Danse Tahitienne), Manao Tupapau – She Dreams of Returning, Dance Fragment, Nevermore, Te Atua – The Gods and Mahna No Varua Ino – The Devil Speaks. Each of these images is brought vividly to life by Alwyn’s skilful piano writing. Interestingly, upon examining the material in closer detail at the Alwyn Archive/Cambridge University Library, I discovered two versions of the work: one of just six pieces (as presented here) omitting the final Mahna No Varua Ino, and the other including it, with the remainder in a totally different order. If you wish to hear this version then you may like to re-programme the tracks as follows: 23, 22, 19, 20, 21, 18, and 24. Alwyn’s fellow student whilst at the Royal Academy of Music, the pianist, Clifford Curzon, has annotated the work. The latter had been the soloist in the first public performance of Alwyn’s First Piano Concerto (1930) with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens on 30 December 1931. The two remained firm friends for many years with Curzon always a keen admirer of Alwyn’s work. Clifford Curzon gave the première of Contes Barbares at a concert of all Alwyn works on 3 March 1940, in the home of Angela and Peter Latham, good friends of the composer, which also included the Pastoral Fantasia in the version for viola and piano with Watson Forbes (viola), Sonata Impromptu for violin and viola, and the Violin Concerto with Frederick Grinke as soloist and the composer accompanying at the piano.

Cinderella and Water Lilies were two of nine pieces that Alwyn composed in 1952 especially for the collection of graded recreational piano pieces published by Alfred Lengnick under the title of Five by Ten. This series of five albums under the editorship of Alec Rowley featured piano music ranging from the very easy through to moderate and difficult by Lengnick’s house-composers of the time, which in addition to Alwyn included Rubbra, Maconchy, Wordsworth, Arnold, Reizenstein, Stevens, Dring and others. Cinderella, a graceful waltz in E major, appears in volume five of the series, and Water Lilies, a dreamy nocturne in B major, in volume four.

Night Thoughts was completed in London during December 1939 and was subsequently published as part of the Oxford Piano Series by Oxford University Press in 1940. The piece is prefaced with the following lines from ‘Drum Taps’ by Walt Whitman:

“By the bivouac’s fitful flame,
A procession winding around me,
solemn and sweet and slow.”

A nocturne in all but name, the piece begins calmly, gradually becoming more impassioned as the procession gets ever nearer, reaching a stormy middle section before returning to the calm of the opening as the procession recedes into the distance.

Movements, Alwyn’s last major work for the piano, was completed on 1st September 1961 and is dedicated to the composer Doreen Carwithen, who would later become Alwyn’s second wife. It is clear from the original manuscript that Alwyn was unsure at first as to what the overall title of the work should be, as he has written ‘Rhapsody’ on the title page then ‘Sonata No. 2’, which also appears at the top of the score to the opening movement. In the end he obviously decided that the title ‘Movements’ would better convey his intentions. This brilliant virtuoso work consists of three contrasting pieces – a dramatic and stormy Allegro appassionato followed by a haunting and atmospheric Evocation, with the demonic and delirious The Devil’s Reel providing an exhilarating and feverish finale to the set. The first performance of Movements was in a BBC broadcast from Broadcasting House given by Terence Beckles on 23 February 1963. Only one more work for the piano was to follow two years later in 1963; this is the Twelve Diversions for the Five Fingers, a series of short pieces designed for educational purposes. So Movements provides a fitting and dramatic close to Alwyn’s imaginative and considerable oeuvre for piano solo.

Andrew Knowles
(with reference to William Alwyn’s programme notes for the Twelve Preludes)

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