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John France
British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content, January 2010

The Prelude is a truly beautiful offering, where the melody is accompanied by misty left hand chords. The melody is repeated and varied a number of times, without ever loosing its tranquility and downright beauty. The last section of the Prelude is a little more reflective. The Fugue is much livelier and if anything a little hard edged. From the first to the very last bar this piece of contrapuntal writing has a sense of fun and of sheer pleasure…

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Ashley Wass proves no less persuasive an advocate of Alwyn’s piano music than he has been of Arnold Bax. The Fantasy Waltzes were championed by John Ogdon but Wass is, if anything, even more convincing and highly polished. Alwyn writes gratefully for the keyboard and the present anthology gives much pleasure and augurs well for its successors. The recording, made at Potton Hall in Sussex, is exemplary in every way.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, August 2008

There is plenty of variety here—a wide range of moods and evocations, from the sentimental to the jazzy, from the folk-like to the mysterious. The set of 11 Fantasy Waltzes, some 35 minutes in duration, deserves far more frequent hearings than it gets. They were inspired by a trip to Norway and a visit to Grieg’s home, and one of them (the third) is an open homage to the Norwegian master. The range of moods encapsulated in this suite is very impressive, and while individual pieces can clearly be excerpted from it, the whole has a shape to it that makes it work as a cycle.

With Ashley Wass’s completely involved performances (these are not mere dutiful run-throughs at all), this disc is a gem waiting to be discovered. Naxos’s sound is clear and exceedingly natural—you feel that you and the piano are in the room together, and André Knowles’s notes are very helpful. This is a truly lovely disc, and is highly recommended.

Robert R. Reilly, July 2008

After giving us British composer William Alwyn’s orchestral music, including his Five Symphonies, Naxos had added three more CDs featuring his piano music (8.570359), song cycles (8.570201) and chamber music (8.570340). The latter contains some real jewels, like the Sonata Impromptu for Violin and Viola, and the Three Winter Poems for String Quartet. All praise to Naxos for giving Alwyn (1905–1985) his belated due.

American Record Guide, June 2008

This young British pianist and the Naxos label seem determined to record the entire British piano repertory. There can be no complaints from these quarters when both music and interpretation is of this standard. Actually, the Alwyn series will eventually stand alone, since the only competition comes from the single discs recorded by John Ogdon and Julian Milford for Chandos (Mar/Apr 1994, Jan/Feb 2001) and both of them are currently unavailable.

The Fantasy Waltzes appear on all these programs. There are 11 of them, and they inhabit a world similar to Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, but with a dash more salt and pepper. Wass may not fully capture the quixotic nature of the pieces as Ogdon does, but I have lived with the Ogdon a lot longer and have gotten used to his interpretations. Suffice it to say Wass is his own man, and I gladly welcome his views to my collection.

The Sonata alla Toccata is in three very short movements that twinkle and shine with melodic charm and rhythmic quirks redolent of Walton and Lambert. The composer packs a lot of goodies into just ten minutes. Green Hills, Cricketty Mill, and Haze of Noon are nature poems where melody and lush harmony are paramount. They are not too far afield from similar languid impressionist essays by John Ireland.

Harvest Home, Fancy Free, and April Morn are suites of miniatures originally designed for educational purposes. They are pleasant, highly melodic, and untroubled—as most pieces of that kind are. Although they pass by in a whiff, no one can complain that they are not entertaining.

Recording and notes are exemplary, and I eagerly await the arrival of the second volume.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, April 2008

Alwyn Studies continues to benefit from the dedication of record companies. This time it’s the piano music that takes centre-stage and this represents the first volume in a welcome new series. The two works that bookend the disc, the Sonata alla toccata and the Fantasy Waltzes are probably the best known but in between we have no less than six world premiere recordings presented by Ashley Wass, whose presence in the studios is proving ever more fruitful across a range of genres.

It could, perhaps should—indeed has—been said that the Sonata alla toccata is not really a sonata and not much of a toccata either. Nevertheless this ten-minute work has a very individual cut; a vibrant romanticism harnessed to neo-classical style. Alwyn is at his most pregnant though in the central movement with its tolling motif and in the final movement where the maestoso grandeur of the writing unveils a baroque plenitude and, once more, a toll resounding depth. Peter Donohoe has also recorded the sonata with equally satisfying results.

The Fantasy Waltzes have long been associated with John Ogdon but Wass loses little if anything in comparison—and Ogdon’s Chandos recording is currently unavailable. The waltzes take up half the playing time of the disc and are the most important things here—thirty-five minutes of spirited, luminous, highly effective and often beautiful writing for the instrument. The first waltz has a healthy dose of Ravel embedded, whereas the Moderato third pays its subtle homage to Grieg. The heavy impressionist drift of the fifth, a strong Lento, is reinforced by its animated central panel. And the sixth, an Allegro giocoso is characterised by Wass with real verve and determination. Maybe Scriabin haunts the coiled introversion of the seventh. The wittiest moments are reserved for the eighth, which sounds like a cross between Johann Strauss and Jaroslav Ježek.

The roll call of premiere recordings includes Green Hills and Cricketty Mill, the latter replete with tricky John Ireland impressionism—fluent, fluid, rising to a more assertive chordal bronze tone when required. The title of the next, Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian Scale, sounds like something Foulds might have written in academic mood but it’s actually rather guileless and warmly lyric. Haze of Noon is a character study, as the title suggests, pleasing but no more. Harvest Home consists of bright little character pieces, not too difficult and good for parlour and hearth performance. Fancy Free and April Morn date from 1924–26 and are both educative in nature; the latter was written for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. So expect no great shakes here but do expect some charming studies, not least in the rainfall evoked in April Shower, which is perhaps the pick of these eight slivers.

The sound quality is excellent. The recording was made at St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol but there was no diminution in the taping of Fancy Free which was made at Crear, Lochgilphead.

Alwyn admirers can welcome this disc gratefully—the Waltzes in particular are alone worth your time—and can look forward to forthcoming volumes with great enthusiasm.

Bryce Morrison
International Piano, February 2008

This project gets off to a flying and celebratory start, for here are no fewer than five world premiere recordings and, more generally, a reminder of a composer who memorably proves his own words—‘we live by what we leave behind’. William Alwyn’s quality was quickly recognised by such luminaries as Clifford Curzon and Denis Matthews, who gave the first performance of the Sonata alla toccata, music where Alwyn’s essential Romanticism surfaces through a busy neo-Classical idiom and an exuberance tempered by his distinctive refinement. The Prelude and Fugue on an Indian Scale contrasts its haunting opening with a complementary astringency, while Fancy Free is a set of miniatures as beautifully crafted as they are subtly evocative. Haze of Noon , too, reminds you of a wealth of English piano music bound up with a deeply felt yet never stridently displayed nationalism, a haunting memory of increasingly distant and tranquil times. The Ravel-inspired Fantasy Waltzes (dedicated to and first performed by Richard Farrell, whom Alwyn considered ‘the finest of all pianists’) were memorably recorded by John Ogdon, yet even he hardly responded to their infinite variety with greater dedication, style and finesse than Ashley Wass, whose performances throughout this richly rewarding and superbly recorded recital make you already long for Vol 2. Alwyn wrote roughly 150 keyboard works so we are clearly in for a long and engrossing journey.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, February 2008

Wass turns on the magic for this first instalment of Alwyn’s piano music

Composer between June 1954 and April 1955 for the New Zealand virtuoso Richard Farrell (who gave the first complete perfonnance in a June 1957 BBC broadcast less than a year before his tragically early death in a car accident aged just 32), William Alwyn’s Fantasy Waltzes make a memorably resourceful, varied and involving 35-minute sequence. I initially encountered them through John Ogdon’s distinguished Chandos recording (11/85—nb) and it’s a treat to be able to hail a new version of comparable charisma and temperament from Ashley Wass.

With his immaculate touch, subtle range of colour and commanding technique, Wass draws every ounce of poetry from the limpid Nos 3 and 5 (the former the first of the set to be composed, shortly after a visit to Grieg’s Troldhaugen home), just as he brings a tingling hush and concentration to the broodingly intense Nos 7 and 9. Nor does he miss out on the element of playful caprice in No 2 or the flamboyant glitter of Nos 6 and 11 (both grandes valses brillantes in all but name).

I find little to choose between Wass and his Naxos stablemate Peter Donohoe (9/05) in the clean-cut and energetic Sonata alla toccata (written for Denis Matthews in 1945–46), and these two main offerings bookend a generous helping of teaching pieces and concert miniatures alike, with the bewitching, Ireland­esque Cricketty M/ill (1935) and drowsy Haze of Noon (1925) particularly attractive discoveries among a healthy clutch of world premiere recordings. The sound throughout is pleasingly lifelike, and presumably we can expect a second volume (including the substantial 12 Preludes from 1959) some time soon.

Jeremy Nicholas
Classic FM, February 2008

After acclaimed recordings of the piano music of Bax, Elgar and Bridge, Wass continues his championship of overlooked English keyboard works of the 20th century with nine works by William Alwyn (1905–85). No less than six of these are world-premiere recordings, written in an appealing English pastoral—impressionist style. There are some lovely things here, the titles self-explanatory (Harvest Home, Cricketty Mill, Fancy Free, April Morn, etc.). The two major works are Sonata alia toccata and Fantasy Waltzes (lasting 35 minutes), the latter a slower and more literal reading compared with John Ogdon’s preferable 1984 account.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, January 2008

British composer Alwyn, who died in 1985, was a fine pianist and composed over 150 pieces for the piano during his lifetime. Some were educational pieces of pedagogy and others were for concert performance by himself and others. Several of the pieces on this CD are herewith receiving their recording premieres.

The opening Sonata is essentially romantic in spirit in spite of adopting a neo-classic stance. Its three movements run about ten minutes, it has interesting cross-rythms and a smashing Presto conclusion. The short pieces before the final major selection run the gamut of light piano pieces to deeper impressionistic sketches. The final 36-minute work is the striking Fantasy Waltzes—11 virtuoso piano pieces which deserve a prominent place in today’s piano repertory. The waltzes for piano of Chopin and Ravel are obvious models here, but Alwyn goes further in creating new concepts based on the familiar 3/4 rhythm. The Seventh is almost like a funeral cortege, and the 11th is a brilliant lighter piece ending with a sparkling finale. These are the piece de resistances of the album.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, January 2008

The most promising of a new generation of British pianists tackles the neglected music of his countryman William Alwyn (1908–1985) with spectacular technique and high style. The titles of the pieces suggest neo-Victorian shlock but instead, we get inventive studies in tone colour that are deceptively difficult to pull off. There are several world-premiere recordings on this disc. Top tracks: Fantasy Waltzes.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2007

For those who have long despaired at the lack of support given to British composers by their native record labels, Naxos’s arrival on the scene is almost too good to be true. Not content with giving us the mainstream works, they are not energetically looking at previously ignored music, this disc containing six world premieres being a typical example. Indeed William Alwyn’s long neglected music has been a particular recipient of the label’s largess. Born in 1905, he had the misfortune of having his education terminated while still a teenager on the death of his father, the need for a family income the prime concern. Yet such was the impact that he had made on his mentors, at the age of 22 he was offered employment at London’s Royal Academy as a composition tutor. There came a turning point twelve years later when he destroyed much of his works prior to that date, Alwyn becoming involved in music for films, the 60 scores composed in this genre largely funding the time spent as a ‘serious’ composer. Yet he neither conveniently fitted into the Vaughan Williams domain of British pastoral music, nor into that brave new world seen by William Walton, and that ‘failure’ left him without the support of the musical establishment. As we have seen in the Naxos series of his symphonies their judgement was so flawed it can be derided, as here was a major composer of the 20th century. Piano music featured throughout his career, around 150 scores in his catalogue of solo works spread over almost 40 years. In style they range from the short but technically exacting Sonata of 1946, through to the delectable Haze at Noon a piece of English impressionism composed in his twentieth year. The disc—which has the stimulating title of volume 1—is largely devoted to the eleven Fantasy Waltzes, pieces that take the whole rhythmic notion of the waltz into a pure world of fantasy. Heavily contrasting, at times skating close to the distortions of Ravel’s La Valse, with a waltz straight from a fun ballet, and a brilliant finale with its roots in symphonic waltzes rather than Vienna. The suites, Harvest Home, Fancy Free, and April Morn have their first outing on disc, the melodic cameos picturing scenes from their title are gentle and unhurried. In Ashley Wass the composer has found the complete advocate, his sense of repose and unhurried response—when most pianists would panic and press forward—creating some of the most magical moments I have ever heard on disc. If you don’t believe me turn to track 25—the sixth waltz for just one moment where beauty is suspended on air. He is helped by a recording that must rank as one of the most realistic piano sounds ever achieved on disc.

William Norris, December 2007

Continuing their survey of repertoire by William Alwyn (1905–1985), Naxos have turned to the British composer’s output for solo piano, with the 2000 Leeds Piano Competition finalist Ashley Wass at the keyboard.

The main attraction on this disc is the Fantasy Waltzes, a composition that pushes the definition of this stylistic dance to the extremes. The broad church philosophy that Alwyn adopts allows him to dabble in the experimental (the deeply searching No. III, inspired by the music of Grieg, occasionally tries to shed its waltz identity), the more conventional (No. VIII) and everything in between (No. V, for example, comes across as a modern Straussian waltz in slow motion). Wass steers an imaginative path through the multitudinous, often virtuosic challenges presented in the eleven movements, displaying a great deal of interpretive depth. Unfortunately, however, this magnificent work’s cohesiveness—which Wass tries so valiantly to foster—is marred by the decision to have elongated pauses between some of the tracks.

The three-movement Sonata alla toccata is a much shorter work (ten minutes as opposed to thirty-five), though no less inventive than its more substantial counterpart. The opening Maestoso—Allegro ritmico e jubilante is closely related to the work’s title, with its rapid, jocular cross-rhythms. By contrast, the slow movement induces an aura of serenity, concluding with an uneasy shift to the tonic minor. Its persistent, drone-like Fs return after a torrent of brilliant triplets in the Molto Vivace which, along with a resplendent recurrence of the first-movement introduction, reveals the work’s cyclic qualities.

The rest of the disc, housed between these major works, can be divided into two halves. The first of these comprises four brief individual works, of which only the rolling Green Hills has made a previous appearance on record. Cricketty Mill harkens back to impressionism, painting a musical picture of a tranquil location in the Cotswolds, whilst the subdued, pensive Haze of Noon is an apposite portrayal of a mysterious midday miasma. The pithy Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian Scale is a genuine find, its deeply nostalgic opening eventually making way for an exhilarating display of joyous neo-baroque counterpoint.

The remaining pieces are three diminutive four-movement suites, all composed for educational purposes. Harvest Home evokes scenes of the autumnal English countryside. ‘Harvest Moon’ is the work’s emotional nucleus, an eerie and atmospheric nocturnal dance. ‘Snowdrops’ occupies a similar role in Fancy Free, which, despite its title’s indication of light-heartedness, is in fact the most subdued of the suites. Even the finale, ‘Happy-Go-Luck’, has an uncanny poignancy beneath its up-beat façade (a virtue that can be accredited to Wass’ admirable playing). April Morn is highlighted by tragedy in ‘The Lost Lamb’ and restlessness in ‘April Shower’, the latter an almost ghostlike depiction of a spring cloudburst which is ultimately whisked away in a most witty manner.

Naxos’ highly responsive engineering has made the most of Wass’ kaleidoscopic dynamic range, as well as producing a striking level of sonority during long held notes both during and, in particular, at the ends of movements (the closing bars of Haze of Noon are an apposite example). This acute sensitivity does pick up on others sounds, such as frequent pedal changes in Green Hills and a somewhat jolting pedal lift in No. IX of the Fantasy Waltzes. Nevertheless, it is in the latter movement that we also hear the refreshing spaciousness of the acoustic, manifested in the punchy chords at its conclusion.

Alwyn possesses a distinctive, if sometimes unexceptional, compositional style, and the fact that he rarely goes where you expect him to is cause for much enjoyment. This alone should be enough to pique the curiosity of any music-lover, pianophile or not. Wass proves to be a fine performer of this repertoire, continuously adapting his playing to incorporate the enormous breadth of expression covered in these works, not least in the Fantasy Waltzes. All in all, this is certainly a disc worth investigating.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group