Various Artists

William Alwyn: Chamber Music and Songs

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Britain's William Alwyn is often classed as a neo-Romantic traditionalist; the booklet for this Naxos disc likens him to the roughly contemporary American Samuel Barber. But this collection of chamber music and songs, most of it never recorded before, reveals a somewhat different Alwyn -- not a modernist surely, but a composer who was aware that Stravinsky and even serialism existed, and who forged an economical new language in a traditionally expressive, tonal idiom in response. From start to finish, this music doesn't sound much like Barber or anyone else, and the disc marks a major accomplishment for Naxos' ongoing series devoted to British music of the twentieth century. Alwyn comes closest to pure late Romanticism in the songs, where compactness is a given. All the music, though, even the more extended Rhapsody for piano quartet and Ballade for viola and piano, is compact, built carefully from themes that are at once highly expressive and rather abstract in shape. The Sonatina for violin and piano and Three Winter Poems for string quartet, with their two- and three-minute movements, evoke late Brahms in their combination of rigor and lushness. Sample the glorious Adagio movement of the sonatina and try to resist the rest of the program. A major attraction, there and elsewhere, is the playing of violinist Madeleine Mitchell; it would be hard to imagine a more sympathetic and graceful interpreter of Alwyn's music. Most of the music on the album dates from the central phase of Alwyn's career in the 1930s and 1940s, but a special bonus is the Chaconne for Tom, for recorder and piano of 1982 -- Alwyn's last completed composition, slightly reworked by the present performer, John Turner. This little piece, written for a friend's celebration, ingeniously reworks Happy Birthday into a quasi-chaconne. It's an enchanting capstone to a career that was obscured for too long by the machinations of the modernist nomenklatura, and the disc as a whole makes a noteworthy contribution to the revival of Alwyn's important body of work.

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