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Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, April 2012

Summary for the Busy Executive: Four gems, two masterpieces in fine performances.

The chamber music on this CD runs from early to late. The early music tries on a range of styles current in Britain at the time, but mostly hanging out in Waltonian neighborhoods. We have just begun to get Alwyn’s very early music, although necessarily in bits and pieces, since he destroyed most of his scores before 1939. The Oboe Sonata, from 1934, sounds a bit like a cross between Hindemith and Vaughan Williams in its rhapsodically pastoral first movement, with a theme built in part from fourths, fifths, and sevenths, and with its largely modal color. The second movement, which opens with a miraculously lovely triple-time chorale in the piano, over which the oboe adds a further comment, at times sounds like one of Ravel’s evocations of old dances. The finale lightens the mood with a jazzy waltz. Throughout this modest work, the level of invention remains very high. Fortunately, he didn’t get his critical mitts on it.

The performers have mastered these scores. I’ve tried to pick out the stars, but everyone here plays at such a high level, it makes no sense to do so. The recorded sound is superb. I consider this one of Naxos’s outstanding releases—and all at a Naxos price as well. © 2012 Classical Net Read complete review

Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency, July 2011

The…Alwyn CD contains six chamber works, composed between 1934 and 1962, including sonatas for clarinet, oboe, and viola. This is all expertly made music in a variety of styles, from the highly lyrical to the slightly stringent. I think they are all gems. This is a mandatory purchase for anyone who has been following the outstanding Naxos Alwyn series.

James A. Altena
Fanfare, March 2011

Naxos is to be commended for yet another excellent entry in its series of recordings devoted to William Alwyn (1905–85), one of the finest but often under-appreciated British composers of the last century. Originally a virtuoso flutist, he then became known for more than 60 film scores, which ironically tended to retard recognition of his more “serious” compositions, including five excellent symphonies and four operas. Here Naxos has gathered several of Alwyn’s many chamber compositions in a potpourri that displays the full panoply of the composer’s eclectic yet distinctive musical style.

The Clarinet Sonata is a relatively late work, dating from 1962. It is cast in a single movement, with 12 distinct tempo designations for its 12-minute span. A jazzy clarinet part is played mostly in the instrument’s higher register. The overall impression is that of the agitated, dark mood of film noir music, though the piece gradually works its way to a more positive close.

The Oboe Sonata, an early composition from1934, consists of three movements. Predominately pastoral in mood throughout, it is unabashedly imitative of Debussy and Ravel—but top-drawer Debussy and Ravel, a work that either master would have been pleased to claim as his own. It is easily my favorite piece on this disc.

The Sonatina for Viola and Piano from 1941 is constituted of four extremely brief movements, totaling only eight minutes, in an alternating slow-fast-slow-fast sequence. Somewhat neoclassical in orientation and alternatively meditative and dancelike in mood, it ably exploits the viola’s dark lower register.

The Suite for Oboe and Harp from 1945 is again a brief work, with its three dance movements of Minuet, Valse, and Jig lasting less than six minutes total. It is penned in an attractive Vaughan Williams-like folk music vein and makes no difficult demands for comprehension.

By contrast, the String Trio of 1959 is composed of far sterner thematic and harmonic stuff. The first movement uses a 12-tone row and is angular, abrupt, and sparse. While the other two movements are tonal, they continue the restless mood of the opening, particularly in the agitated finale.

Conversations for violin, clarinet, and piano dates from 1950 and is cast in seven movements lasting 18 minutes. As conversations go, this one is generally intimate in tone, with music that is lyrical, gentle, and beguiling in a vein once again akin to Vaughan Williams; only the fourth-movement Fughetta shows signs of being passionate and argumentative.

Although only the Viola Sonatina is stated to be a premiere recording, I cannot locate any previous issues of the Clarinet Sonata, the Suite, or Conversations. The recorded sound has typical Naxos clarity, and the booklet has detailed notes on the works and headshots of the performers. Recommended to all fellow lovers of Alwyn’s music.

David Schwartz
American Record Guide, January 2011

Alwyn’s music is fascinating and perhaps underappreciated; his mature compositions are particularly rewarding. The Viola Sonatina, the String Trio, and Conversations make this program worth having. These are works I come back to time and again, and I think you will too.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, October 2010

A thoughtful chamber survey reveals Alwyn’s chamber craftsmanship

This collection of six works for various combinations reveals William Alwyn at his most impressive, always thoughtful in finely crafted works. The Clarinet Sonata, with Robert Plane an inspired soloist, is in a single movement, a sequence of sections with varying speeds. Originally commissioned by Thea King, it opens with a virtuoso flourish leading to a melancholy melody and exploits the full range of the clarinet’s most distinctive qualities, not least hushed pianissimos, which regularly marked King’s masterly performances. Strongly constructed, the 12-minute sequence ends with a repeat of the opening flourish. The Oboe Sonata by contrast is in three distinct movements. A jolly first movement with neo-classical overtones is followed by an easily lyrical slow movement and a finale with more neo-classical echoes. Sarah Francis is a first-rate soloist with Sophia Rahman again a most sympathetic accompanist.

The Viola Sonatina with viola player Sarah Jane Bradley is in four compact movements starting with a grave slow Prelude leading to a light, scampering Dance and a warmly lyrical Aria before the finale in a sort of hornpipe rhythm. The Suite for viola and harp, with Sarah Francis joined by Lucy Wakefield, treats the harp more as an accompanying instrument than for display. In three brief movements, a lyrical piece with a simple tonal melody leads to a miniature waltz and a final jig with a lyrical middle section. The String Trio is similarly in four brief movements but involves a rather more astringent idiom. The first movement with a 12-note theme has a pizzicato middle section. It is followed by a jig marked Molto vivace and a solemn slow movement leading to a strong, positive finale in contrasting sections. Conversations for piano, violin and clarinet consists of a sequence of eight short pieces that the composer described as “a discussion between friends”. It nicely brings together three of the principal contributors to the whole programme. Altogether a fine survey, splendidly played and recorded.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2010

A writer-poet as well as an accomplished artist in addition to being one of England’s most respected music educators and prolific composers, William Alwyn (1905–1985) was truly a Renaissance man! Having left us some three hundred concert works and nearly two hundred film scores, we have here a sampling of his lesser known chamber music, including one world première recording.

The concert begins with a three-movement sonata for clarinet and piano, which dates from 1962, and is the latest of the six pieces on this release. In a single twelve minute span the composer describes it as a “fantasy-sonata,” comparing it to Debussy’s (1862–1918) later chamber music, of which the 1909–10 Première Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano—he never wrote another—comes to mind. Loosely structured, it’s a dramatic virtuosic confrontation between contrasting thematic ideas.

The composer pirated much of the thematic material for his three-movement sonata for oboe and piano of 1934 from a sonatina for piano and orchestra he’d begun the previous year, but would never finish. The rustic opening moderato is followed by a comely lied-like andantino and final waltzing allegro. The music is perfectly suited to the most plaintive of wind instruments.

Next up, we have the sonatina for viola and piano (WPR) of 1942, which Alwyn originally called a short suite. In retrospect this seems a more appropriate title considering it’s in four tiny informal movements. They consist of a pensive prelude, elfin dance, mellifluous aria and spunky finale.

The suite for oboe and harp from 1945 that follows is in much the same spirit as the sonatina. It consist of three miniscule dances that include a minuet with a Cheshire Cat grin, a perky waltz, and a fast-slow-fast folkish jig.

The most progressive work here is the string trio of 1959 where Alwyn was experimenting with dodecaphony, while staying within the bounds of tonality. In four movements, the beginning allegro introduces a tone row which is rigorously developed. Fragments of it serve as the seed material for the next two movements, which are a twitchy scherzo and yearning cavatina. The finale begins in great agitation, but gradually slows becoming highly melodic, and ending quietly with a romanticized version of the opening row.

The final selection, Conversations, is a suite of eight brief trialogues for violin, clarinet and piano dating from 1950. The piano could be considered the moderator and the other two instruments panelists for this musical forum. The opening “prelude,” “romanza” and “chorale” are highly melodic. Then there’s a contentious “fughetta” followed by a sinuous “arioso,” tintinnanbulous “carillon” and disembodied “intermezzo.” The discussion closes with a “capriccio” featuring a skittish piano, bluesy clarinet and reticent violin. This and the preceding trio are magnificently crafted pieces ranking with the best English chamber music of this period.

All of the performances are superb with a special round of applause going to clarinetist Robert Plane, oboist Sarah Francis and pianist Sophia Rahman for their distinguished playing. The Hermitage String Trio must also be commended for their dynamic reading of the trio.

Made over a two-day period, the recordings are outstanding. They project a soundstage perfectly suited to each of these small ensembles, bathed in the warm acoustic of the Henry Wood Hall in London. The instrumental timbre is exceptional with a velveteen clarinet, piquant oboe, articulate harp, well-rounded piano, and natural string tone. Audiophile chamber music devotees couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration disc.

WRUV Reviews, September 2010

Works written between 1934 and 1962, showing the composer’s development from gracious melodies to darker intonations. Includes the first recording of his Violin Sonata. Try any!

John France
MusicWeb International, September 2010

I would suggest that an interesting approach to this CD is to listen to the works in chronological order. The music presented spans nearly thirty years and gives a good insight to the composer’s musical development over that period. It is an often-stated fact that William Alwyn drew a line under his musical development in 1939, largely disowning his previous works. Even the briefest of glances at the catalogue of his music published by Stewart Craggs and Alan Poulton in 1985 or Andrew Knowles’ listings in The Innumerable Dance by Adrian Wright show a huge number of works that fell foul of his desire to make a new beginning. In fact, the chamber works seem hardest hit by this momentous decision. Fortunately, for Alwyn enthusiasts, a number of these early and seemingly lost pieces have been gradually emerging from obscurity. Recently, Dutton released the tone-poem Blackdown and the Peter Pan Suite; Naxos have given the listener a number of early pieces including Aphrodite in AulisAn Eclogue for small orchestra after George Moore, and the Five Preludes. Some early piano music has also been rediscovered including the charming, but rather difficult Cricketty Mill.

The present CD includes one attractive and important work from prior to 1939—the pastorally-inclined Oboe Sonata and also a world premiere recording of the Viola Sonatina (1941)...William Alwyn’s Oboe Sonata was first heard at the Royal Academy of Music in a recital by Helen and Lillian Gaskell. The Times reviewer was suitably impressed and suggested that the work was ‘euphonious and agreeable without sounding old fashioned’ and that it was a ‘true sonata’ that gave each instrument a share in the progress of the music.

The Oboe Sonata is written in three unbalanced movements with the first being as long as the second and third together. The opening bars of the ‘moderato e grazioso’ provide much of the material for the entire work. I have always been struck by the fact that much of this movement seems to defy the ‘grazioso’ instruction. In fact, there is a lot here that is slow and reflective and quite introverted. Certainly this is pastoral music at its best: without being in any way a cliché.

The second movement is a chorale-like ‘andantino’ which really prolongs the mood of the first movement. There is a lovely tune here that is given in dialogue between piano and oboe. The final movement is a lively little waltz which most definitely has a ‘French feel’ to it. The coda, however, is rather restrained and brings the work to a quiet close. The work typifies the composer’s ability to write ‘easy flowing melodies’ and music that is eminently satisfying for both the players and the listener.

Finally, strange as it may appear to listeners in the 21st century; the Oboe Sonata caught the imagination of the general public during the 1930s and was even included in the BBC Radio Programme –‘Your Choice of the Week’.

The Viola Sonatina is the next work chronologically: it is a world premiere recording. My first reaction is that this is a sonata in all but name. There is little here that would fulfil the common expectation of a ‘Sonatina’ being ‘easy to play’. The only concession to the form is the relatively short movements. The work was written in 1941 and was originally called a Short Suite, but the composer deleted this in the manuscript and wrote in the present name. There are four movements, a prelude, a dance, an aria and a finale. There is a depth to these movements that seems to belie their brevity. In fact the ‘aria’ is one of the loveliest things in Alwyn’s catalogue and leaves the listener wishing it would continue for more than three minutes. The opening ‘prelude’ is deep, reflective music which is not really lightened by the ‘dance’ which is played muted throughout. However the finale blows away care. This is exciting music that brings this Sonatina to a dynamic close. It is good that Alwyn enthusiasts should have this worthy piece in their collections.

Four years later, in 1945 wrote the diminutive Suite for Oboe and Harp. It was composed for Léon and Sidonie Goossens, who gave the first broadcast performance in November of that year. Alas the music is over all too soon. The opening ‘minuet’ has a feeling of sadness and regret that is not quite dispersed by the short ‘valse’ which follows. Yet even the ‘jig’ does not completely change the mood. Here there is a hint of Irish folksong, but also a touch of Celtic melancholy in the middle section. It is a lovely work which should be better known. I guess that it is the combination of harp and oboe that tells against its more frequent performance. Yet, it is this particular instrumentation that gives the work its charm.

Conversations had me confused. I knew that I had heard this piece on CD before. But I could find no reference to it in the record catalogues. It was then that I read Andrew Knowles sleeve-notes and discovered the solution to the problem. The original title of the piece was Music for Three Players which had been completed in November 1950. The work had been especially composed for the Claviano Trio, Arthur Pennington (violin), Reginald Kell (clarinet) and Richard Favell (piano). When the work was published some 46 year later it was renamed Conversations, which well reflects the composer’s idea that they were a kind of ‘conversazione’ between friends. The work consists of eight short pieces. Mary Alwyn wrote that ‘…the piano spans the discussion with the violin and clarinet adding their comments.’ The content or mood of this exchange of opinions include a ‘prelude’, a ‘romanza’ a ‘fughetta’ and a ‘carillon’. Please do not be put off by the seemingly ephemeral nature of this piece. It is an important work that has depth, variety and colour and often considerable beauty. And lastly, I suddenly realised where I had heard this work before: it was on the Chandos Volume 1 release of Alwyn’s chamber works. However, here it had been given its original name!

The String Trio seems to have a confusion of dates. Hubert Culot in a review on MusicWeb International dates it as 1962, as does Knowles/Wright in The Innumerable Dance. The composer in his notes used by Chandos cites the same date. However, Andrew Knowles, in the liner-notes and Poulton/Craggs in their catalogue give the ‘true’ date of 1959. The confusion probably arose because the work was not performed until three years later. The Trio was written at a time of considerable stress in the composer’s personal life and also at a time when he was experimenting with ‘short scale groups’ in his Third and Fourth Symphonies and the Twelve Preludes for Piano. The String Trio was commissioned by The South Western Arts Association and is dedicated to ‘The Ormonte Trio’ which gave the first performance on 13 March 1962.

The distance of nearly a decade does seem to have made a considerable difference to the sound-world utilised by the composer. For one thing, this work is constructed from a 12-note tone-row which is announced at the start of the piece but is then subdivided and used judiciously throughout the rest of the work. The Trio lasts for just over quarter of an hour and has four movements—an ‘allegro molto’, a molto vivace and a ‘cavatina’ and a final ‘allegro’. Interestingly the Poulton/Craggs catalogue lists this work as having three movements!

Hubert Culot has stated that this Trio is one of William Alwyn’s most important chamber works. He adds that it is a ‘compact work full of imagination and invention, of highly contrasted ideas, in which the conflicts are eventually washed away by the peaceful coda of the fourth movement.’

Finally, the listener should not be put off this work by any mention of series and tone-rows. William Alwyn never allows these compositional tools to dictate the direction of the work: he uses them to create something in his individual style. This is an attractive and often moving Trio that totally hides the ‘construction lines’ beneath sheer musicality and beauty.

The latest work presented on this CD is the Clarinet Sonata which was completed in Blythburgh, Suffolk in August 1962. It was written as a commission from the great clarinettist Thea King, although it was dedicated to Anthony Friese-Greene.

The Clarinet Sonata is a relatively short work, lasting some dozen or so minutes. It is written in a single movement: Alwyn himself typifies it as a ‘fantasy sonata’ which well defines the fluid, almost improvisatory nature of much of this music. Criticism has been made on the over-dependence of the opening gesture throughout the piece, resulting in ‘much empty rhetoric and vulgarity.’ This is an exaggeration, and with hindsight it appears that Alwyn has squared the circle of writing a piece that sounds ‘free’ yet is actually tightly controlled. Hugh Ottoway, writing in the August 1964 edition of the Musical Times writes that the work ‘displays three main facets of the instruments character—the flamboyant, the lyrical and the ejaculatory.’ It is a good summation of this work’s impact.

The first performance was apparently on 3 November 1962 at Leighton House, Kensington with Thea King (clarinet) and accompanied by Celia Arieli (piano) and not at the Chelsea Music Club in 1963 as stated by Poulton/Cragg.

I enjoyed this CD. Like most other Alwyn enthusiasts, I have the two fine Chandos CDs mentioned in the review above. It is a futile business to try to decide between these two editions. I guess I might suggest that Nicholas Daniel and Julius Drake had the edge with the lovely Oboe Sonata. But that would be to ignore insights brought to this piece by Sarah Francis. The Hermitage String Trio gives a fine account of the String Trio on the Naxos disc—but who can say that it is better than the excellent performance by the Quartet of London on Chandos. I conclude that I have to have all of these discs. It is a bit like saying who plays Beethoven piano sonatas better, Alfred Brendel or Daniel Barenboim. I would need both.

Finally, this Naxos release has the fine Viola Sonatina, which to my mind is well worth the price of the recording. Yet my favourite piece on this CD is the stunningly beautiful Oboe Sonata. I am just so glad that William Alwyn did not tear it up in 1939!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2010

Already much indebted to Naxos for recordings of William Alwyn’s symphonies and piano concertos, we now have the pleasure of a superb disc of his chamber works. I have to admit to a long term love and admiration of his music, but I am sure you can dip into this new release at any point and find music that you will enjoy. At times looking back to a folksy idiom in the Suite for Oboe and Harp, you will find the influences of the French Impressionists in Conversations, or the Poulenc era in the cheeky finale to the Oboe Sonata.Born in 1905, Alwyn was only 18 when the death of his father terminated his musical education. Yet already his gifts as a musician had been recognised, London’s Royal Academy of Music invited him back three years later to take a post as a composition tutor. He soon amassed a large catalogue of works, though destroyed half in a period of self-reassessment. But the world was changing rapidly, Vaughan Williams making considerable headway, and a brazen young upstart called William Walton was on the scene. Alwyn having become wedded to tonality disliked much happening around him, and now looked to film scores to give him financial stability. There were moments—as in the previously unrecorded Viola Sonatina—when nostalgia takes over, the score one of intense beauty. Only in the introduction to the String Trio of 1959, do we detect modernity, though it is soon dispelled. Throughout the disc some of the UK’s best known chamber musicians play with that innate feel for the music. Add a first class recording, and this is readily my Naxos disc of the month.

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