Continuing their survey of repertoire by William Alwyn (1905-1985), Naxos have turned to the British composer's output for solo piano, with the 2000 Leeds Piano Competition finalist Ashley Wass at the keyboard.
The main attraction on this disc is the Fantasy Waltzes, a composition that pushes the definition of this stylistic dance to the extremes. The broad church philosophy that Alwyn adopts allows him to dabble in the experimental (the deeply searching No. III, inspired by the music of Grieg, occasionally tries to shed its waltz identity), the more conventional (No. VIII) and everything in between (No. V, for example, comes across as a modern Straussian waltz in slow motion). Wass steers an imaginative path through the multitudinous, often virtuosic challenges presented in the eleven movements, displaying a great deal of interpretive depth. Unfortunately, however, this magnificent work's cohesiveness – which Wass tries so valiantly to foster – is marred by the decision to have elongated pauses between some of the tracks.
The three-movement Sonata alla toccata is a much shorter work (ten minutes as opposed to thirty-five), though no less inventive than its more substantial counterpart. The opening Maestoso – Allegro ritmico e jubilante is closely related to the work's title, with its rapid, jocular cross-rhythms. By contrast, the slow movement induces an aura of serenity, concluding with an uneasy shift to the tonic minor. Its persistent, drone-like Fs return after a torrent of brilliant triplets in the Molto Vivace which, along with a resplendent recurrence of the first-movement introduction, reveals the work's cyclic qualities.
The rest of the disc, housed between these major works, can be divided into two halves. The first of these comprises four brief individual works, of which only the rolling Green Hills has made a previous appearance on record. Cricketty Mill harkens back to impressionism, painting a musical picture of a tranquil location in the Cotswolds, whilst the subdued, pensive Haze of Noon is an apposite portrayal of a mysterious midday miasma. The pithy Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian Scale is a genuine find, its deeply nostalgic opening eventually making way for an exhilarating display of joyous neo-baroque counterpoint.
The remaining pieces are three diminutive four-movement suites, all composed for educational purposes. Harvest Home evokes scenes of the autumnal English countryside. 'Harvest Moon' is the work's emotional nucleus, an eerie and atmospheric nocturnal dance. 'Snowdrops' occupies a similar role in Fancy Free, which, despite its title's indication of light-heartedness, is in fact the most subdued of the suites. Even the finale, 'Happy-Go-Luck', has an uncanny poignancy beneath its up-beat façade (a virtue that can be accredited to Wass' admirable playing). April Morn is highlighted by tragedy in 'The Lost Lamb' and restlessness in 'April Shower', the latter an almost ghostlike depiction of a spring cloudburst which is ultimately whisked away in a most witty manner.
Naxos' highly responsive engineering has made the most of Wass' kaleidoscopic dynamic range, as well as producing a striking level of sonority during long held notes both during and, in particular, at the ends of movements (the closing bars of Haze of Noon are an apposite example). This acute sensitivity does pick up on others sounds, such as frequent pedal changes in Green Hills and a somewhat jolting pedal lift in No. IX of the Fantasy Waltzes. Nevertheless, it is in the latter movement that we also hear the refreshing spaciousness of the acoustic, manifested in the punchy chords at its conclusion.
Alwyn possesses a distinctive, if sometimes unexceptional, compositional style, and the fact that he rarely goes where you expect him to is cause for much enjoyment. This alone should be enough to pique the curiosity of any music-lover, pianophile or not. Wass proves to be a fine performer of this repertoire, continuously adapting his playing to incorporate the enormous breadth of expression covered in these works, not least in the Fantasy Waltzes. All in all, this is certainly a disc worth investigating.