Saturday, 2 January 2010

William Alwyn: Rarely Heard Piano Music

I came across this lovely YouTube presentation of a selection of William Alwyn’s piano music. It includes some rarely heard pieces from the recent Naxos releases by Ashley Wass. Volume 1 8.570359 and Volume 2 8.570464
Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian Scale
She Dreams of Returning from Contes Barbares
Water Lillies from Five by Ten
Cinderella from Five by Ten
The end of the Second World War did not see a huge rise in Alwyn’s musical output: there is only what Adrian Wright terms minor pieces. These include The Cherry Tree for voice and harp, a suite of Scottish Dances and Three Songs for High voice which were settings of poems by Louis MacNiece. It was not until 1946 that major work was to appear -the Sonata alla Toccata for piano.

However amongst these shorter works was the Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian Scale was had been completed in March 1945. This made use of a synthetic scale devised by omitting the fourth and seventh notes ascending from the scale of G major. The Prelude is a truly beautiful offering, where the melody is accompanied by misty left hand chords. The melody is repeated and varied a number of times, without ever loosing its tranquility and downright beauty. The last section of the Prelude is a little more reflective. The Fugue is much livelier and if anything a little hard edged. From the first to the very last bar this piece of contrapuntal writing has a sense of fun and of sheer pleasure. There is no doubt that the composer was delighted that the War was nearly over!

Contes Barbares – Barbaric Tales (Homage to Paul Gauguin) does not even get a mention in Adrian Wright’s essential biography of the composer. The work was written over a three year period between 1930 and 1933. It was finally completed after Alwyn had returned from a voyage in the South Pacific. Andrew Knowles in the CD sleeve notes suggest that the “idea for this cycle of pieces must have germinated in Alwyn’s mind after he had seen Gauguin’s picture Manao Tupapau (She is Haunted by a Spirit or She Dreams of Returning), which depicts a girl lying in the dark in a melancholy atmosphere, terrified by the spirit of the dead, at the Leicester Galleries in 1928/9.” It was a painting that was to haunt the composer’s imagination for the rest of his life.

The piece chosen for the video is She Dreams of Returning which is another sustained piece of writing that vacillates between a dream like state and something just that little bit sinister.
There are seven pieces in Contes Barbares - Auti te pape – Woman at the River, Le Vivo (Danse Tahitienne), Manao Tupapau – She Dreams of Returning, Dance Fragment, Nevermore, Te Atua – The Gods and Mahna No Varua Ino – The Devil Speaks.
Clifford Curzon premièred the entire series at a concert of Alwyn works on 3 March 1940.

Cinderella and Water Lilies were two of nine pieces that Alwyn composed in 1952 especially for the collection of graded recreational piano pieces published by Alfred Lengnick under the title of Five by Ten. This series of five albums under the editorship of Alec Rowley featured piano music ranging from the very easy through to moderate and difficult by Lengnick’s house-composers of the time, which in addition to Alwyn included Edmund Rubbra, Elizabeth Maconchy, William Wordsworth, Malcolm Arnold, Franz Reizenstein, Bernard Stevens, Madeline Dring and others. Cinderella, a graceful waltz in E major, appears in volume five of the series, and Water Lilies, a dreamy nocturne in B major, in volume four.

Water Lilies is actually quite a complex piece for educational purposes. It has echoes of a seemingly endless list of precursors. In many ways it is quite a varied little piece with a number of ideas and themes. The composer indicates that both pedals ought to be depressed. This leads to a blurred, impressionistic effect with the left-hand third chords with added notes. The melody is constantly varied, with echoes back to the opening four bars.
Cinderella is a recital piece. This is the last work in the five volumes of Five by Ten and is almost certainly the most difficult to play and to interpret. It is also one of the longest. The form of the piece is interesting. On first play through the impression is given of constant change of melody and accompaniment with no obvious unifying material. It is composed as a waltz and is written in 6/8 time. It is only after study that one realises the piece is actually very cleverly constructed. It is as if the music is reminiscence by Cinderella after she has returned from the ball. There is constant change of tempos, figuration and even tune. Nothing ever seems to be tied done – it is a work of fleeting images. Yet there are snatches of theme that are presented and re-presented which lead to a sense of unity. A truly lovely miniature and well worth learning.

The paintings used to ‘accompany; the video are excellent -they are well chosen and include, in order

Paul Signac, The Large Pine

Alfred Stevens, The Lady with the FanHenri-Edmond Cross, Paysage de Bormes
Edgar Degas, Fin d'arabesque

Listen to these four works on YouTube

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