Last weekend I travelled down to Suffolk for the William Alwyn Festival situated in and around Southwold. The Festival is now in its fourth year. As well as promoting the work of Alwyn himself, the Festival concentrates on the work of twentieth-century British composers, often featuring forgotten works, and sometimes even forgotten composers. There are plenty of old friends too.
The Festival offers a range of chamber music, at least one orchestral concert, a film show, and other Alwyn related events; many of the concerts are located in the beautiful churches of Suffolk. Alwyn and his partner, the composer Doreen Carwithen, moved to Blythburgh in the early 1960s. It remained their home until their deaths, and I think they considered themselves to be honorary Suffolk composers. In 2011 the first Alwyn Festival took place in their beloved adopted county.
This year, the Festival opened with Evensong at Blythburgh and included an anthem by Patric Standford (sadly one of his last works), specially commissioned for the Festival. The start of the Festival proper was a film show in Southwold’s little gem of a cinema, The Electric Picture Palace followed by a piano recital given by Nathan Williamson. This was a typical Alwyn Festival programme blending a range of twentieth century works (Alwyn, Peter Dickinson, John McCabe, Lloyd Moore) with more traditional Beethoven and Brahms.
A morning coffee recital on the Friday morning brought together the violinist, Fenella Humphreys, with the ubiquitous Nathan Williamson. This was an enchanting concert featuring Bach and Brahms, the music of both Mr. and Mrs. Alwyn (Doreen Carwithen), and a lost work by C.W. Orr.
The Carwithen sonata was an unexpected joy, while the Orr Minuet must have one of the most delightful dedications of any work of music: “Dedicated to that noble, sublime, incomparable artist; the once-heard-never-forgotten Miss Mercia Stotesbury;” a dedication that any musician would die for.
The evening’s song recital included two Alwyn song cycles, one of which, Mirages, also had lyrics by Alwyn. A group of songs by British composers paid tribute to the anniversary of the First World War; while performances of Russian songs marked Alwyn’s love for the music of Eastern Europe.
As has become central to the Festival, there was a string quartet recital at Blythburgh Church on the Saturday. Two Suffolk composers were featured – Alwyn and Christopher Wright – along with Schubert, and a relatively rare performance of Puccini’s I Cristantemi. Puccini was one of Alwyn’s favourite composers.
The Saturday afternoon concert was an unusual mix of music and poetry – the two mediums that Alwyn loved best. Featuring the music of Alan Rawsthorne (born the same year as Alwyn), as well as contemporary composers and poetry. The concert included an introduction by Andrew Palmer, who first met William Alwyn and Doreen Carwithen when he was a schoolboy (he interviewed William for the school magazine), and John Turner, the recorder player, another friend of William’s.
The final concert, at St. Bartholomew’s, Orford, saw the return of the Prometheus Orchestra, who have been a Festival fixture since its inception, along with soloist Philippa Davies. Highlights included John McCabe’s arrangement of Alwyn’s Concerto for flute and eight wind instruments, here arranged for flute and orchestra, and a work by Andrzej Panufnik in celebration of his centenary.
Along with talks and art, the Festival’s a great opportunity to hear some little known music, and listen again to some old favourites; all in a beautiful part of Britain. Although it’s only been going for four years, the Alwyn Festival has already established a faithful following, so there’s a friendly feel to the Festival too. If you went this year, I hope you enjoyed it, and if you didn’t, well, there’s always next year….