British Early Modern composer Doreen Mary Carwithen [1922–2003] wrote two string quartets. She studied under William Alwyn and then worked for him before they married in 1975, leading her to becoming Mary Alwyn. The two quartets are extremely accomplished, the First being in a characteristically optimistic British style while the Second I believe has more emotional depth.
This second work, composed in 1952 and in two movements, begins with an adagio tempo. The first notes heard are a solo violin phrase, which forms the basis of musical development for some time. After one iteration, a harmonised version is introduced, and the phrase is then passed around the ensemble, including the cello. Now the mood moves into a richly harmonised passage, in the classic British tradition. The violins soon rise above the ensemble, making for an air of transcendence. Beautifully harmonised interlocking violin lines are filled out by the ensemble, which eventually leads the music into a new mood – one of piercing violins. A series of tense passages unfolds, with not a note out of place. Stunning ensemble harmonised lines cry out before the cello has a solo statement with a minimal ensemble accompaniment. Still the music moves on, seemingly always investigating a lamenting feeling. Nearing the end, the mood moderates slightly, becoming marginally more positive. The end is a faded, gentle passage.
The second movement has a strong tempo from the start. The writing is intense, and many mini crescendos are to be heard. A change to a syncopated rhythm leads to a sense of Modernity, with evidence of dissonance. Now a violin reaches out over a sparse ensemble, before retreating into a conversational passage, also featuring the second violin. There are many richly harmonised sections to be heard here, which I believe also gives a nod to the classical British tradition.
A new energy now rises out of the previous harmonic material and the violins express with great gusto. There is something indefinably beautiful about this passage – it is marvellous writing. A period of strong chords, followed by stirring violin lines is wonderful. An unexpectedly loud chord brings about a most introverted section where sparse violin lines create another intangible musical moment. The ensemble then positively storms to a conclusion.
This is the kind of British writing that I would love to hear more of. It is a shame that the composer seemingly subjugated her musical career to support her husband’s. She is a fine composer in her own right. The review CD also contains a lovely, extended Sonata for Violin and Piano.
This disc, titled String Quartets Nos. 1, 2 & Violin Sonata is performed by the Sorrel Quartet, on the Chandos label. It is available at Amazon US and UK. There is also a CD, Alwyn & Carwithen: Music for String Quartet that contains a quartet by both composers, including Carwithen’s No. 2.
I could only find the Sorrel Quartet version on Spotify.
Listenability: Meaningful mid-century quartet works.