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Richard Whitehouse
International Record Review, January 2012

The Maggini Quartet’s integral recording of Alwyn’s mature string quartets…is superb disc…the three mature quartets are well worth the attention…deeply serious, fascinatingly expressive and very rewarding both for the players and the listener. The quartets are also wholly individual with regards to their structure; the result is a disc of outstanding British chamber music © 2012 International Record Review

Len Mullenger
MusicWeb International, December 2009

Nearly 15 years ago MusicWeb International was born as the William Alwyn website because I loved his music and wanted more to hear it. We are now well provided with recording from Lyrita, Chandos and lastly Naxos. They came late to the scene although Rob Barnett and I pushed the cause when we met Klaus Heymann some years ago. They may have been late but they have been thorough and their recordings are always superb and at superbudget price. With limited time (and a vast over-exposure to recordings) I have not listened to the chamber works often enough. From the pessimism of the second quartet, the third was his last work but was bright and energetic and with a consoling ending. © 2009 MusicWeb International

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, July 2009

Movie buffs know William Alwyn (1905–1985) as one of Britain’s most prolific and innovative film composers, with 70 feature scores to his credit. Fewer music-lovers know that he wrote a wide variety of concert works as well, many created in the romantic style of his film scores. That is regrettable, as Alwyn’s compositions are technically impeccable and highly inventive, reflecting his life-long devotion to balancing technical innovation with accessibility. Thanks primarily to Chandos and Naxos, his works have received some of the attention they deserve, and this Naxos disc is a welcome addition to the growing Alwyn discography.

A perfectionist, Alwyn spent 33 years developing his quartet-writing technique, producing 13 quartets before the ones he finally acknowledged. In 1953, when 48 years old and at the height of his powers, Alwyn published the String Quartet No. 1 while under the spell of Czech music and the sanguine state of his life. The work is sunny and warmly romantic and includes, in the Adagio, a violin solo of startling beauty, one of Alwyn’s most ravishing creations. This quartet is the most conventional of the three, and listeners who enjoy Dvořák’s later quartets will feel right at home.

Alwyn was in a very different frame of mind 22 years later. The String Quartet No. 2, the most personal of the quartets, is a darker work of loss and regret. Janáček is felt here, but by and large this piece inhabits the austerely chromatic sound world of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Again the Adagio, here the final movement, carries the greatest emotional weight, as the aging composer seems to struggle with despondency and impotent rage. The two-movement Third Quartet, Alwyn’s last major work, written in his last year, begins where the Second leaves off. Here, though, the tension and darkness are eventually dispelled by a sweetly romantic second subject that would not have been out of place 31 years (or 131 years) earlier. Where the Second Quartet was anguished, this one is wistful, even, in a brief scherzando segment, bemused. Subsequent returns to consonance, in the final movement, have the effect of a sunset after a storm, and the ending is serene. The disc itself concludes with a premiere recording of Novelette, a piece from 1939 written for publication as part of a series of short quartet works by English composers. Its charm and cleverness suggest that Alwyn may have been too hasty in disowning his earlier quartet works.

There are currently three recordings of these numbered quartets, two available on CD. One, the reputedly excellent Razumovsky Quartet set on Dutton 7168, I have not heard. It apparently can only be purchased through the label’s Web site. This Maggini Quartet CD, continuing an admirable series of British string quartets for Naxos, is the other. With controlled vibrato and sharp attacks, theirs is a compellingly stark, uncompromising, physical approach, stressing the modernity of the works. Lyrical sections, as a result, stand out in bold relief. In this, the solo work of first violinist Lorraine McAslan is particularly praiseworthy, making one regret that she has since left the quartet. The pioneering Quartet of London set on Chandos—the first two quartets were recorded in the presence of the composer—is only available as a download from Chandos’s online store. In dollars and spread over two discs (9219 and 8440), they are fairly expensive, especially compared with this Naxos release. They do, however, include excellent performances of the Rhapsody for Piano Quartet and the String Trio. The London ensemble emphasizes the lyrical qualities of the works with somewhat underplayed dissonances and tempos and attacks that are more subtle and moderate than the Maggini’s. Frankly, I am glad to have both the Chandos and the Naxos, but for those seeking just one, I can recommend this Naxos release most enthusiastically. Now if someone could resurrect a few of those earlier quartets…

Barry Kilpatrick
American Record Guide, March 2009

Alwyn wrote a dozen string quartets in his early years, but he disavowed them after he finished Quartet 1 in 1953, at age 48. While his later works show him to be contemplating mortality, here he is full of life, clearly operating at a peak of creativity. While there is considerable dissonance and conflict, they are more than offset by optimism and appreciation of beauty.

In Quartet 2 (Spring Waters, 1975), however, Alwyn says that turning 70 is a sobering moment. [Movement] I begins full of hope and energy but falters and takes on a questioning, insecure tone. At 7 minutes, a transformative moment takes place where a lovely, warm chord suddenly appears in the gloom, much like the pivotal moment in Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night—but the feeling doesn’t last. In II, Alwyn looks back at his youth, while III is about old age and its conclusion. After all that doom and gloom, the ending is rather oddly triumphant.

If Alwyn felt that way at 70, how did he feel at 79 in 1984, a year before his death? At peace, if his two-movement Quartet 3 is any indication. In I, struggles and doubt are balanced by fierce determination and energy. II is introspective and resigned, though the middle portion is warm.

The program ends by returning to the verve of Alwyn’s younger days. ‘Novelette’ (1939) is a syncopated, contrapuntal miniature with an interesting mixture of energy, darkness, and warmth.

Superb readings by the Maggini Quartet, renowned for promoting English music.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, February 2009

Terse, turbulent late chamber works receive commanding performances

The Novelette (a winsome miniature from 1338–9) rounds off yet another absorbing anthology from the Magginis, who play with the utmost perception and have been vividly recorded. Purchase with confidence!

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, January 2009

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).   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) which I haven’t heard but which have been generally praised…

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) still available as an mp3 or lossless download from—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).  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.

John France
MusicWeb International, December 2008

I first discovered the music of William Alwyn by way of his Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island. The then new Lyrita LP was one of the featured albums on Record Review on Radio 3. I remember rushing into Cuthbertson’s music shop in Glasgow to try to buy it. Luckily, they had a copy and I quickly bought it and hurried round to a friend’s house to listen to it. And if I am honest, the work has remained my favourite piece of Alwyn ever since. There were only the Lyrita recordings and a single Unicorn LP of his music available in those days and I soon managed to add them all to my collection. Christmas and birthdays certainly came in very handy. [The Magic Island is also available on Naxos 8.570144 – Ed.]

It was some years later before I realised that Alywn wrote a great deal of chamber music. In fact, although there are only three numbered string quartets, many more were lost or suppressed when the composer decided to delete his juvenilia. His first essay in the form was back in 1920, when he was just fifteen years old. He wrote a String Quartet in G minor. Over the following fifteen years he composed a further twelve quartets and then the Irish Suite (1939-40). In 1948 he wrote the Three Winter Poems. It is only the last named that has currency nowadays.

It was not until 1953 that Alwyn completed the String Quartet in D minor that he allowed to become his Quartet No. 1. It would be another twenty or so years before the Second Quartet appeared and finally the third was written shortly before the composer died. In fact it was his last major work.

Although it would be easy to define Alwyn’s career as a symphonist or as a film music composer it may be that it is actually the string quartet that provided the continuity through his career. In fact, the composer wrote that he was fascinated by this “most intimate of mediums” and endeavoured to “balance the four instruments with equally interesting material to produce a satisfying whole.” Even the most cursory of hearings of the three works on this CD will surely reveal that aspiration as having been successfully realised.

The First Quartet is actually my favourite of the set. It is cast in four movements. Although I guess the work is not formally cyclical, the composer has suggested that the “movements are fused into a whole by the subject hinted at in the opening few bars.” This theme is heard again, played very loudly towards the conclusion of the finale. The ‘scherzo’ is ‘will o’ the wisp’ type of music—Alywn called it ‘feather-light.’ One reviewer has suggested that there are nods here to Debussy’s Feux d'artifice. Certainly there is something of the night here—fireflies seem to dart across a starlit sky. The heart of the work is the reflective and somewhat introverted ‘adagio’. There is much in this movement that is stunningly beautiful: few pages of Alwyn’s music are more moving than these. The last movement is surely an optimistic response to the ‘adagio’. This is a ‘rhythmically driven’ finale that provides an exciting end to the work. There is a tranquil middle section that calms things down just a bit. The String Quartet No. 1 in D minor was first performed on 1 May 1954 by the New London Quartet.

In 1975, when Alwyn was 70, he wrote his Second Quartet. It is subtitled ‘Spring Waters.’ On the score there is a quotation from Turgenev:-

My careless years

My precious days

Like the water of springtime

Have melted away.

The composer is keen to point out that these words are not intended to give any kind of programmatic content—this is not a description of a hillside torrent! He writes that they should be “regarded merely as the motivating spark that fired an essentially abstract composition.” This work is much more intense than the First Quartet. Listeners have detected the language of Debussy in this music: I hear echoes of Bartók and Schoenberg. The music is also typically less romantic than the first—probably spare or austere are suitable adjectives to describe this work.

In spite of the composer’s insistence that this is an abstract work, he recalls that each movement was initiated by definite moods. The moderato—the ‘spring waters’ of high hopes and romantic illusions soon change into emotions of resignation and disillusion in the ‘lento’ section. The middle movement an ‘allegro scherzando’ recalled to the composer “the lost turbulence of youth and young love, but now seen through a glass darkly …” The opening bars of the last movement seem to inhabit a twilight world where death would seem to be the only possibility. However, both the finale and the work end positively and the composer suggests that “Death is not defeat”.

The Second Quartet is very far removed from what is typically thought to be the composer’s style. This work has moments of stasis that are rarely found in his orchestral music. Yet this is a beautiful composition, full of insight and meaning and is ultimately positive in its peroration. The work was dedicated to his friend Reg Williamson, who persuaded—if persuasion was needed—him to write the work.

The String Quartet No. 3 was completed in the spring of 1984. The story is that the composer began to consider writing this work after attending the Chandos recording sessions of his two earlier essays. The composer wrote that "... again I was filled with the desire to compose one more work for this most perfect of mediums." History tells us that it was his last major work. Yet as a swan-song it is near perfect. From my perspective it is the finest of the set, if not my favourite.

The work was dedicated to a late friend of the composer - a certain Sir Cecil Parrott who was a diplomat, an author and "a most sensitive of music lovers."

Alwyn prefaced the score with these words -

All that is about me

            a radiance - a sigh

Time now gathers my winding sheet

            of syllable and song.

  The mood is totally different from the predominately pessimistic Second Quartet. This is not concerned with deep and disturbing thoughts about old age and ultimate death. This is an optimistic work, from the pen of someone who perhaps realises that this is their last major essay, but has largely come to accept the situation. As a work it is full of energy and vigour. The general impression of dialectic, of thesis, antithesis and synthesis permeates the very core of the piece. This mood is enforced by the large number of tempo changes and the typically restless nature of the music. The work ends with an elegiac ‘adagio’. This surely must be seen as a solace to the composer in his old age. The work was first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival on 13 June 1985, by the Quartet of London.

The ‘novelty’ on this CD is the early Novelette that was composed in 1938-39 for the Oxford String Quartet Series. The programme notes remind the listener that the idea of this series to give a number of short pieces that would be suitable for ensembles that were on the learning curve. Other composers in the series included Thomas Pitfield and Felix Swinstead. There is nothing challenging about the Novelette except to say that it does not play down to the players or the audience. It is an attractive piece that has an open air feel to it. Certainly it deserves its place on this recording.

There are two other recordings of the String Quartets currently available—one on Dutton Epoch and the other on Chandos. I have all three versions in my CD collection as I imagine many other English music enthusiasts will have too. I must admit a preference for the Quartet of London’s performances. It is perhaps prejudice due to the fact that these were my introduction to these works back in the nineteen-eighties. For this review I listened carefully to a couple of movements from the Maggini, the Quartet of London and the Rasumovsky String Quartet—played back to back—and found that all the recordings are rather good. The Chandos discs are a little light on quantity: spread over two CDs that weigh in at three quarters of an hour each. The Dutton recording has all three quartets plus the Winter Poems, so it is good value for money. The present recording has the unknown Novelette as a useful addition. However, if it came to choosing just one version I would be stumped …

The Maggini plays this music convincingly, the technique sounds superb and the balance of the formal structures and the varying harmonic language are handled competently. Altogether, a thoroughly enjoyable recording. Additionally the programme notes by Andrew Knowles are extremely helpful and informative.
As noted above, this CD is a must for all Alwyn enthusiasts.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2008

Composing string quartets throughout his life, William Alwyn was so immersed with the task of achieving four equal voices, that he eventually considered only three worthy of publication.

Those who have had access to his manuscripts would describe his dismissal of his earlier works as needlessly harsh, and one would hope that Naxos might be persuaded to issue the four quartets written between 1932 and 1936. Born in 1905, he had to terminate his education while still a teenager, though by then he had impressed his mentors to such an extent that at the age of 22 he was offered the post of composition tutor at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He was to become a prolific film composer, a genre that largely funded his time spent as a ‘serious’ composer. The three string quartets are tonal, modern and highly personal statements, unease never far beneath the surface in the First Quartet of 1954, giving way just over twenty years later to a sense of anger that he had not fulfilled all he wished in life, the clue coming from the subtitle ‘Spring Waters’ and referring to a poem of life’s ending. The Third, and his last major score, is even more biting and corrosive, its impact both large and thought provoking. The disc ends with his early Novelette, a score of immediate attractions. The music is often technically challenging, but is supremely played by the Maggini Quartet, Lorraine McAslan’s many violin solos a display of outstanding technical brilliance. I have no doubt that these are major 20th century quartets, and I strenuously urge you to explore them.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group