Thursday, 30 March 2017

Welcome premiere recordings of William Alwyn’s early quartets Nos 10 to 13 from the acclaimed Tippett Quartet on Somm

Between 1922 and 1936 William Alwyn (1905-1985) wrote thirteen string quartets of which he was never truly satisfied and which he withdrew. In his Essay in Autobiography, Winged Chariot Alwyn wrote ‘…compositions were pouring from my fertile pen, too fertile as I was to realise later; no less than 14 String Quartets (there was an un-numbered earlier quartet), a Violin Concerto and a gigantic setting for soloists, double choir, organ and orchestra…’

It was not until his String Quartet in D minor of 1953 that he felt he had ‘fully indulged (his) love of melodic subtlety and invention,’ titling it his Quartet No.1.

Sadly these early string quartets have never been recorded making the premiere recordings of Nos 10 to 13 from the acclaimed Tippett Quartet for Somm Recordings all the more welcome.


William Alwyn was born in Northampton, England and studied with Sir John McEwen (1868-1948) at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he later taught. In 1961 he retired to Suffolk to compose. His compositions include five symphonies, concertos, an opera Miss Julie, vocal works, piano pieces, chamber works and over 60 film scores.

Alwyn’s String Quartet No. 10 (En Voyage) is headed ‘R M S Rangitiki Pacific Ocean, December 1932 when the composer was returning from Queensland, Australia and was broadcast by the Birmingham Ladies Quartet in May 1936 with a contemporary critic remarking ‘…it is agreeable music, not unadventurous in harmony, well written for the instruments and by no means without atmosphere.’

In four movements the first is entitled Departure (Adagio e dolente) and opens with a gentle theme introduced by the viola which is immediately taken up by the whole Quartet. The Tippett Quartet finds every little detail and nuance in this beautifully pastoral adagio. Soon there is a repeated violin motif around which the theme is developed, adding a gentle rocking motion. The music rises dynamically midway before finding the gentle peace of the opening, with some beautifully ripe string tone from the cello. Sea Birds (Allegro vivace) springs into life with a pizzicato chord to move full of spirit, through passages that evoke fresh air and open spaces. Centrally   a wistful section appears with a lovely descending motif before further more reflective moments are heard only to race to a terrific coda.

The Lonely Waters (Adagio ma non troppo) brings a gentle, hushed two note rising and falling motif for violins and viola to which the cello adds a deep line. It is the cello that continues the melancholy theme over the rest of the Quartet, a quite lovely idea.  Later the theme is taken by all the players, finding a quiet passion as it develops, the cello again adding deep rich tones, through a quieter, sombre passage that leads to the coda. Trade Winds (Vivace) has a sparkling opening that brings some very fine playing from the Tippett Quartet in this fast and breezy movement. The music soon finds a greater flow as the melody is developed, finely shaped by this Quartet, bringing forth every rise and fall. Later there is a rather romantic moment before the music scurries to the coda to conclude on a held cello note.

String Quartet No. 11 in B minor was written in April and May 1933 and is in three movements. The first movement opens with an Andante ma non Troppo that rises out of a cello motif, slowly finding a fresher sound as it develops, through passages of varying tempi and dynamics before rising for the Allegro con brio to dash forward energetically with some beautifully turned phrases, later finding richer sonorities. The opening motif re-appears before the music takes off energetically again with this Quartet creating a terrific energy and forward pulse. When the lovely reflective Andante arrives there is some beautiful writing for strings before we are led to the hushed coda; a glorious moment.

Alwyn created a lovely opening idea for the second movement Andante e semplice, full of pathos as the viola brings the melody over a repeated idea for violins. There are some lovely little details revealed by the Tippett Quartet as the music slowly weaves through some lovely passages, finding a passionate edge as it develops, yet always returning to its gentler feel. Quite lovely. The Quartet weave a lovely opening to the final Moderato e quieto, gentle yet flowing, moving through some exquisite ideas with a rising and falling motif. The music rises in dynamics midway before finding a bittersweet passage that leads to a gentle coda.

Alwyn’s Fantasia (String Quartet No. 12), in one movement marked Allegro con alcuna licenza, was completed in London in July 1935. It is dedicated to Alan Bush and was given its premiere by the Stratton Quartet at a concert in the Mercury Theatre, London in January 1937. The Times critic was less than enthusiastic writing that it had ‘… attempted somewhat half-heartedly to break new ground but left an uncertain impression behind.’ Happily at a later London performance by the Blech Quartet, Musical Opinion found that it was ‘… the only work that aroused any desire to hear it again…it contained a number of ingenious and novel effects.’

This work is a definite step forward from the preceding quartets, opening with more advanced, often dissonant harmonies, full of brilliance and breadth. The music falls through some fine passages where the cello brings deeper tones over the rest of the quartet. Once again there is a freshness and vitality before a slower section, beautifully shaped and nuanced. The cello develops some lovely phrases around the other players, rising in drama, finding moments of depth and feeling before the opening dissonant idea quietly returns. There are moments of increased passion as a dissonant descending motif appears. The cello brings passionate phrases over a gentler quartet line before leaping up with energy. Later the cello brings a deep rich passage which is developed until springing out across the quartet. It is a rich quieter passage, full of intense feeling, that leads to a shimmering, hushed coda.

String Quartet No. 13 was written during October and November 1936, but never performed in the composer’s lifetime. In two movements, The Tippett Quartet dig deep into their strings in the passionate outburst that is the opening of the Adagio e largamente e marcato before leading through an impressive tapestry of harmonies and sonorities as the music flows forward. There is a gentler section where some fine ideas are woven as well as a moment of pensive deliberation that precedes some more intense phrases. Later the music falls to a hush before slowly raising itself up to move slowly forward through a moment of exquisite feeling, finding a wistful solace at the end.  

Pizzicato phrases help to propel the Allegro molto e vivace allegro forward until a jaunty little theme arrives, recalling the pastoral nature of earlier quartets. Yet still there is a more advanced edge in the harmonies as the music weaves some fine passages. There are some really lovely bittersweet passages before rising through moments of increased depth and passion. Later the music suddenly picks up to move quickly forward with pizzicato phrases driving the pace. This Quartet brings some brilliantly played, fast, richly woven textures before the music finds the slower, flowing pastoral theme with lovely harmonies that leads to a hushed coda.  

Alwyn may have dismissed these quartets but they offer much pleasure, particularly in performances as fine as these from the Tippett Quartet.

The Tippett Quartet are well recorded at St. Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, England and there are excellent notes. 

Let us hope that Somm will allow the Tippett Quartet to record more of these early quartets. 


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful account . This has been quite informative as I didn't know the history behind it.


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  3. Music is my favorite hobby. I alao have a little atudio where i play guitar when i am bored. Thanks for sharing your story of recrording your music its interesting and fun to read.


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