The Strad's experts evaluate the latest string recordings
Alwyn: String Quartets nos.1–3, Novelette
Sunday, 01 February 2009
William Alwyn (1905–85) was one of the great English masters of the last century. His vast output ranged from five symphonies to various concertante pieces, song cycles, operas, some 60 film scores and music for nearly 150 documentaries. His special sensitivity to the intimacy of the chamber room is unmistakable in his three mature string quartets, which followed 13 earlier attempts that for one reason or another he was not entirely satisfied with. By his own admission he was greatly indebted to Czech music, most notably Smetana and Dvoˇrák in the First Quartet (1953), while the considerably later Second (‘Spring Waters’, 1975) and Third (1984) breathe the more claustrophobically forbidding air of Janáˇcek, replete with insistent ostinatos and sudden changes of emotional direction.
This is music that requires quicksilver expressive and technical reflexes, qualities on which the Maggini Quartet thrives. There are few ensembles that could remotely match it in the Third Quartet on this kind of form. The players tear into the Bartók-like polytonal opening chords with gripping abandon, yet when the music turns seductively Ravellian at 1:10 they capture its sultry atmosphere to perfection, and a minute later leader Lorraine McAslan shapes her exultant melodic line with ecstatic portamentos. No less spellbinding is the way the players voice the mysterious rustlings of the Second Quartet’s Allegro scherzando, relishing every magical change in sonority with a painterly eye for texture and colour. Andrew Walton secures atmospheric sound that perfectly blends internal detail with collective allure.
From the February 2009 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial.