Hyperion’s virtually single-handed rehabilitation of the music of York Bowen (known in his time as ‘The English Rachmaninov’), continues apace with this recording of the third and fourth piano concertos. Piano Concerto No 3 is a vigorous one-movement work with three well-defined sections of varying tempos in Fantasia style. Bowen’s sparkling performances of it drew plaudits from contemporary critics, who hailed it as his best composition thus far.
The Piano Concerto No 4 (said by Sorabji to be the greatest work for piano and orchestra ever written by an Englishman) is a large-scale Romantic, virtuoso work, impressionistic solo passages alternating freely with Straussian orchestral textures throughout. It was written for a BBC broadcast, and for the composer himself to perform; Bowen considered the work his best composition for the piano and an important addition to the concerto literature. It has not been given a studio recording until now.
The young British pianist Danny Driver, a Bowen specialist, gives a virtuoso performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.
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By the time of his death in 1961 York Bowen represented something of a dichotomy: he was respected but neglected. His early reputation as a composer and pianist was such that his appearances ignited feverish reviews, concert halls sold out and many notable musicians performed his works, holding them in high esteem, including among others Lionel Tertis, Fritz Kreisler, Beatrice Harrison, Aubrey and Dennis Brain, Albert Fransella, Hans Richter and Sir Henry Wood. His collaboration with these legendary artists, together with his extraordinary insight into the instruments for which he composed, has resulted in a legacy of many excellent works and as time elapses the quality of Bowen’s work is now being brought into clearer perspective.
Edwin York Bowen was born in Crouch Hill, London, on 22 February 1884, the youngest son of a co-owner of the whisky merchants Bowen and McKechnie. After early lessons with his mother, his parents, recognizing his remarkable talent, enrolled him at the North Metropolitan College of Music and, having rapidly made progress, he performed Dussek’s Piano Concerto when only eight years old. Following a period of study with Alfred Izard at the Blackheath Conservatoire, Bowen won the Erard Scholarship at the age of fourteen to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied piano and composition with Tobias Matthay and Frederick Corder. He won many prizes, including the Charles Lucas Prize for his tone poem The Lament of Tasso, which was produced at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert in 1903 conducted by Henry Wood. In 1905 he graduated from the Academy having been awarded the Worshipful Company of Musicians Medal and was appointed Professor of Piano there in 1909, a post he held for fifty years.
The first decade of the twentieth century was a remarkably productive time for Bowen. It was during this period that his first three piano concertos were composed and performed, with the composer as soloist, at the Queen’s Hall under the baton of eminent conductors such as Hans Richter and Sir Henry Wood, his prodigious talent prompting many of the most notable musicians of the day to seek his pianistic skills. His orchestral compositions were also popular; the Symphonic Fantasia was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall in 1906, conducted by Hans Richter to enthusiastic applause, not just from the audience but from Richter as well. In addition, a Concert Overture, two symphonies and over twenty solo piano and chamber works belong to this period, including some substantial viola compositions. Bowen was only twenty-six years old and, with most of the standard repertoire at his fingertips, was in great demand as a pianist as well as composer. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he enlisted in the Scots Guards, playing the horn (he was an excellent horn and viola player) in the regimental band, but contracted pneumonia while in France and had to be repatriated. After resuming his post at the Academy after the war he found the world rapidly changing and his romantic style of composition no longer favoured.
Undeterred, Bowen continued to compose music in the style he believed in and produced some remarkably fine works in the period between the two World Wars, notably his Piano Concerto No 4, Horn Quintet, two string quartets and the acclaimed twenty-four Preludes in all the major and minor keys, Op 102. A number of instrumental works appeared in the 1940s (again dedicated to and performed with the most notable musicians of the time, including Gareth Morris, Pauline Juler and Carl Dolmetsch), followed by his Horn Concerto and Symphony No 3 (the fourth is lost) in the late 1950s. His output was copious—and for the most part unpublished.
The recent revival of Bowen’s music has raised his standing as a composer, but for many people he is still best remembered as a pianist. His performances elicited outstanding reviews, not just for his own works, which he played frequently, but for many major works in the concert repertoire. He wrote more for the keyboard than any other British composer, including pedagogic works, and is unique in writing so comprehensively across a spectrum that ranges from children to virtuoso and from one hand to two pianos. One can detect influences of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Strauss and Debussy in his works, the collage of styles contributing to a remarkable sound world.
Bowen’s contribution to British music is significant and it remains a mystery why he has been so overlooked. His works won many prizes over the years and his playing was legendary (he made the first commercial recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 in 1925, using his own cadenzas, and he emulated Rachmaninov in giving the first performances as soloist of all four of his own piano concertos). Sadly, his sudden death in 1961 raised only a few, sometimes inaccurate, sentences in obituary columns. Sir Henry Wood said Bowen was a composer who had never taken the position he deserved. Hopefully, with the current revival of interest in his music, this will change.
The manuscript of the Piano Concerto No 3 is inscribed ‘to the Worshipful Company of Musicians,’ and bears the title ‘Fantasia (3rd Concerto) for piano and orchestra’. It is a vigorous one-movement work with three well defined sections of varying tempos in Fantasia style; on the occasion of its premiere at a Promenade concert in September 1908, it was promoted as a ‘new piano concerto in G minor’, much to the irritation of the critics who unanimously claimed it should be termed Fantasia. Many felt it was Bowen’s best composition so far, effective and full of interest, with melodious themes and rhythmic flow. Furthermore, they were united in their view that Bowen’s performance, as soloist, was brilliant and a major contribution to the success of the evening. He performed the work on several other occasions, in Bournemouth in 1909 and 1920, and at a Promenade concert in October 1924, conducted by Sir Henry Wood.
The work opens with a short introductory horn announcement over tremolo strings and piano flourishes, which leads to the Allegro con spirito first theme (briefly heard in the introduction) in piano octaves, before a scherzando-like passage arrives at a swaying Poco meno mosso second theme in D major. The first theme returns and is freely developed with punchy rhythmic exchanges between woodwind and piano, until agitated piano octaves interrupt the orchestral build-up, eventually subsiding into the Andante grazioso middle section. Legatissimo piano arpeggios accompany an expressive string melody, creating a fluid texture as the piano drifts into a Più lento dreamy Impressionistic world. A solo oboe and violin then anticipate the return of the opening theme. There follows a brief Molto maestoso, before a brass fanfare leads us back once more to the first theme, before the final Allegro con fuoco third section further explores thematic material from the Andante grazioso. A brief explosive cadenza and piano pyrotechnics precede a last Maestoso brass fanfare as the work draws triumphantly to an end.
The Piano Concerto No 4 (said by Sorabji to be the greatest work for piano and orchestra ever written by an Englishman) was first performed for a BBC radio broadcast, with the composer as soloist, on 19 March 1937, with the BBC Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, and again shortly afterwards, on 1 January 1938, with the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, conducted by B Walton O’Donnell. If the first three piano concertos were produced amidst much clamour, the broadcast of No 4, sandwiched in between a basketball commentary and the Calcutta Cup, passed almost unnoticed. A private recording made at the time was unfortunately marred by balancing problems and Boult promised they would do the concerto again; however, to Bowen’s disappointment, this never materialized. Bowen, who considered the work his best composition for the piano and an important addition to the concerto literature, tried on many occasions to have the concerto performed in public but had to wait another twenty-two years before eventually succeeding. The BBC, deciding to honour his seventy-fifth birthday year, invited him to give the first public performance (also broadcast on the Home Service) at a Promenade concert on 4 September 1959, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron. Bowen was delighted. The seventy-five year old veteran, his virtuosity and beautiful tone quality still intact, gave an exemplary performance.
The fourth Concerto is a large-scale Romantic, virtuoso work, Impressionistic solo passages alternating freely with Straussian orchestral textures throughout. The first movement opens with a sombre introductory ostinato and sonorous piano chords above long, sustained pedal notes in the basses, evoking a watery texture reminiscent of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (Préludes, Book 1). An agitated outburst from the piano temporarily interrupts the momentum. The ostinato resumes, insistently, before another outburst leads the way into the Allegro moderato first theme, introduced by cor anglais, horn and strings. A lilting pastoral Allegretto in the new key of F major heralds the arrival of the second theme, announced by solo woodwind, which is developed in an attractive waltz-like dialogue between piano and orchestra. The mood changes suddenly with angry piano octaves accompanying the first theme in the strings, which drives towards a passionate climax before subsiding with a return of the opening ostinato motif in the piano, more of a feature now than at the beginning. The tempo picks up again with Impressionistic keyboard passagework and echoes of the second theme in woodwind and brass as the music surges towards an impassioned cadenza. Largamente chords herald another return of the opening ostinato, with the first theme heard mournfully on the cor anglais, before a final echo on the horn brings the movement to a close.
The second movement, in E major, opens with a quirky introductory theme, punctuated by stabbing chords. We then enter a different world of Romanticism in the Poco più andante, the first theme heard on the cor anglais and solo viola. A broad second theme quickly follows, announced by horns and cellos, working its way through a variety of instruments and keys. After a brief hint of the first theme again, two solo passages continue exploring the opening material before repeated Es cue the arrival of a Più sostenuto third theme in the woodwind. This is developed at length over rippling arpeggios, with earlier thematic material reiterated briefly by solo violin and brass, before the dream-like spell is broken as the arpeggios give way to poco agitato octaves in the piano. The orchestra builds to a passionate climax before a poco ad lib quasi cadenza, after which the quirky opening motif leads back to the first theme in the piano, solo violin and flute. A final echo of opening material brings the movement to an end.
The finale opens with a punchy rhythmic theme in piano octaves, punctuated by woodwind and brass. Chattering passagework leads to a brief cadenza before nudging into a Più sostenuto second theme in D flat major, introduced by the clarinet and developed through constantly shifting harmonies. The piano reasserts itself, driving the orchestra restlessly onwards, interspersed by unusual forte bass trombone outbursts; the tempo accelerates before murky, spacious piano textures and staccato woodwind eventually subside into a risoluto reintroduction of the first theme in bassoons and cellos. The orchestra builds again to a climax of Straussian proportions, arriving at a passionate cadenza with glimpses of thematic links to the second movement. Stravinskian chords herald the return of Tempo I, and earlier material is further explored before subsiding into a mysterious epilogue that combines the first movement ostinato with a poignant recall of the finale’s main themes, on strings and solo trumpet. Darkness gives way to light as Bowen draws to a pianissimo close in the tonic major, finally at peace.
Glen Ballard © 2008
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 24 – Vianna da Motta
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 37 – Nápravník & Blumenfeld
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 38 – Rubinstein & Scharwenka
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński
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