String Quartets Nos 6-9; Seven Irish Tunes for String Quartet
Lyrita SRCD.386 75.35 mins
In his maturity, William Alwyn disowned his first 13 string quartets, presenting his 14th – dated 1953 – as ‘No. 1’. Undaunted the Villiers Quartet present four early ‘illegitimates’ all written in his 20s.
It seems Alwyn’s Royal Academy of Music teacher John McEwen, a keen quartet writer himself, encouraged composing such works as a way of flexing muscles and exploring contrasting material in a shortish space. If so, the lessons were learned, but a little slowly and spottily. The Irish folk tune arrangements of 1923 offer an early and bright example of Alwyn’s deftness at crafting different moods (a knack vital for his subsequent film scores), though it takes the last two quartets, from 1931, to reveal a composer knitting materials and structures into fully convincing wholes. The process reaches a climax in No. 9, a heartfelt, romantic, one-movement creation headed by lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Even when Alwyn wobbles, endearing qualities and striking moments are at hand, such as the Sixth’s vein of English melancholy streaking through the first movement, and the variation finale’s ebullient conquest of a previously unprofitable theme. The Villiers players, boisterously and closely recorded, perform with passion and technical finesse. Geoff Brown