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Hyperion Records

CDA67751/2 - Bowen: Piano Sonatas
Black piano (2004) by Lincoln Seligman (b1950)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: August 2008
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2009
Total duration: 118 minutes 18 seconds


'No better example of Hyperion's founding principles could be imagined than this disc of three premiere recordings contributing to the first survey of the complete sonatas by an unjustly neglected composer … Danny Driver is the ideal advocate for this glorious music, playing with razor-sharp articulation and a rich, organ-like sonority … Driver is an artist who is able to transcend the sterile surrounds of the studio and give 'real' performances, an early Award nominee for next year' (Gramophone)

‘Danny Driver plays the canon of six sonatas with a blend of warmth, bravura, expressive sensibility and verve … Driver’s superb, astute performances are convincing testimonies to Bowen assimilating stimuli with a potent imagination of his own’ (The Daily Telegraph)

'Scintillating demands amply accomplished by Driver, whose light filigree passagework is sensationally clear … the Fifth is a veritable tour de force, Bowen at his best … Francis Pott's programme notes are ideal … Driver's virtuosity and technical finesse is remarkable' (International Record Review)

'This fine sonata survey from Danny Driver, whom readers may recall from his oustanding Hyperion coupling of York Bowen's Third and Fourth Piano Concertos … all are demanding, rewarding scores that Driver despatches with captivating virtuosity' (Classic FM Magazine)

'With performances such as these a successful future for Danny Driver seems assured. This young soloist plays with sympathy and dedication, buoyancy and freshness. This is a splendid set from Hyperion that should broaden York Bowen’s appeal still further. Francis Pott has as usual done a fine job with the booklet essay. Beautifully recorded by the Hyperion engineers at the Henry Wood Hall with warmth and considerable clarity' (MusicWeb International)

'All this music here is played quite wonderfully by Danny Driver—with bravura, sensitivity and insightful commitment, a labour of love; with tangible and vivid recorded sound and informative documentation, this release can be heartily recommended' (

Piano Sonatas
Larghetto  [5'30]
Allegro  [9'58]
Allegro molto  [7'29]
Andante con moto  [4'55]
Lento espressivo  [4'33]
Moderato  [8'11]
Andante semplice  [4'38]

The recent revival of York Bowen’s music, very much spearheaded by Hyperion, has spawned a plethora of new recordings of his compositions, and won him many new admirers. Among the new releases, this disc of Bowen’s piano sonatas is a uniquely important collection. It contains three premiere recordings, including two recordings of previously unpublished sonatas performed (with special permisson) from the manuscripts. It is thus the first ever recording of the complete sonatas – an unmissable opportunity for piano enthusiasts.

Hyperion is delighted to welcome back the young virtuoso Danny Driver who was enthusiastically acclaimed for his masterly, stylish and technically dazzling performances of Bowen’s Third and Fourth Piano Concertos, and described as an ideal performer of these works.

Other recommended albums
'Boughton: The Immortal Hour' (CDD22040)
Boughton: The Immortal Hour
Buy by post £8.40 CDD22040  2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The pigeon-holing mentality may always have been with us in one form or another. The Swedish symphonist Franz Berwald became ‘The Berlioz of the North’, just as Bruges is sometimes compared in similar terms with Venice, or St Petersburg with Buenos Aires. ‘Wagner is the Puccini of music’, allegedly wrote J B Morton with mischief firmly in mind, and the jibe has been widely quoted since, both ways about. In similar vein, York Bowen has acquired an ‘English Rachmaninov’ label. Although there is some demonstrable justice in this where the fifth and sixth piano sonatas are concerned, it represents but a part of the truth and oversimplifies the climate of Bowen’s formative years.

Edwin Yorke Bowen was born on 22 February 1884 at Crouch Hill, London, the third son of the founder of Bowen McKechnie, whisky distillers. After piano studies with Alfred Izard at Blackheath Conservatoire, in 1898 Bowen won the Erard Scholarship of the Royal Academy of Music, with which he was to remain associated for the rest of his life. Dropping his baptismal name and the ‘e’ of ‘Yorke’ early in his career, he became a devoted student of the famously eccentric Tobias Matthay (1858–1945).

Bowen was also an accomplished violist and horn player, in the latter capacity joining the regimental band of the Scots Guards at the start of the Great War. Invalided home with pneumonia in 1916, he became one of many for whom the harsh realities of the time brought artistic disappointment. Having married in 1912, Bowen spent his remaining years in faithful service to the RAM as a professor of piano, where, endearingly, his earlier discarding of ‘Edwin’ gave rise to the affectionate nickname ‘Uncle Yobo’ among generations of students. He died suddenly in November 1961 during a brief shopping excursion from his home, active to the last as a pianist and pedagogue, but also as a composer whose idiom had remained largely unaffected by the passage of years since his first successes. In this respect he invites comparison with his exiled Russian counterpart Nikolai Medtner.

The first three sonatas collected here set a question mark against the ‘English Rachmaninov’ sobriquet (Medtner, too, railed against a hated and persistent ‘Russian Brahms’ label). At this stage Rachmaninov was a very recent phenomenon: his cousin, the pianist Alexander Siloti, had taken Europe and the USA by storm in 1898 with ‘the’ C sharp minor Prelude, Op 3 No 2. This had led to Rachmaninov’s own London debut with the Royal Philharmonic Society, as both pianist and conductor, in spring 1899. The enormous success of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto occurred during Bowen’s RAM studentship, its fame becoming international in 1902 and leading to a London performance by Siloti in May that year. By now Bowen had already written his first two piano sonatas, and the Rachmaninov influence detectable in some of his mature works took some time to percolate into his compositional style. Indeed, if any Russian composer had made an impression on Bowen by 1902, it might well have been Anton Rubinstein, who had given London recitals in the 1880s and ’90s and of whom Tobias Matthay had made a pedagogical study.

In any case, Bowen’s expanding output of solo piano music began to show a variable but significant debt in other directions, notably Debussy, whose characteristic use of augmented triad formations (a consequence of the whole-tone scale) finds its way into the English composer’s opulently late-Romantic harmonic thinking. Bowen was also in thrall to the music of Richard Strauss. Incensed later when Sir Alexander Mackenzie (then Principal of the RAM) denounced Strauss in a lecture as guilty of ‘musical exaggerations of the most disgusting kind’, he precipitated a row and tendered his resignation from the RAM staff in protest, though he was soon amicably reinstated.

The Piano Sonata No 1 in B minor Op 6 was privately published in 1902 (the edition is listed as ‘Dinham Blyth’), probably with the financial support of Bowen senior, who made a scholarship endowment to the RAM when his son graduated. The Sonata was inscribed to Claude Gascoigne, an Academy contemporary with whom Bowen played two-piano music. Since the unpublished Second Sonata is dated 1901 on its final page, possibly the gestation processes of these two works overlapped, though Bowen’s manuscript unequivocally presents the C sharp minor Sonata as No 2, opus 9.

After a performance of the B minor Sonata at St James’s Hall, The Standard diagnosed the influence of Grieg, a curious verdict until one compares the work specifically with the Norwegian composer’s early E minor Sonata. Both works launch without preamble into a purposeful theme, compact in rhythmic structure but wide-ranging in pitch. There the resemblance debatably ends and one becomes aware of Bowen’s pianistic debt to Chopin, whose own B minor Sonata seems acknowledged here in the rhythmic and textural characteristics of the outer movements. Given Bowen’s youth at the time, it is unsurprising to find a certain metrical regularity in his principal subjects, while in the conventionally structured opening movement a tendency to leaven expansive rhetoric with occasional quasi-balletic gestures gives rise to a central section with more divertissement than cumulative development about it. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious work, with a grand exposition repeated in full and a second subject already deploying one or two oblique modulations seemingly learnt from Strauss.

The second movement displays a certain artless simplicity, still detectable two decades later in the slow movement of the Fifth Sonata and reminiscent of short mood pictures by the American composer Edward MacDowell (1860–1908). An expansive central passage leads conventionally back to the mood of the opening, but the final stages are much abbreviated. The ensuing Tempo di Minuetto is slight and short-lived, combining attractive modality with a metrical regularity which respects the origins of such movements in actual dance, albeit at a faster speed. The finale mirrors the tonal design of the first movement, again featuring conventional sonata form and a songfully Chopin-like second subject in the relative major key. The printed appearance of this music strongly suggests immersion in the Chopin already cited, as does a pianistically muscular coda in the tonic major key.

In the Piano Sonata No 2 in C sharp minor Op 9 Bowen seems to begin where the First Sonata left off. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn is soon evoked by a persistent melodic tag reminiscent of his Hebrides Overture. In more general terms, the metrical regularity of Mendelssohn informs the young Bowen’s phrase structures. However, the pianism is again indebted primarily to Chopin. More sophisticated and expansive than in the First Sonata, it allows scherzando elements to contribute to the general Sturm und Drang, rather than to dilute them with hints of balletic woodwind. Chopin’s presence becomes more explicit midway through the central development section (which highlights both principal subjects in their original order), when a passage from his Second Scherzo threatens to sweep Bowen from his own path. However, this is still music of considerable assurance and dramatic flair, remarkable for so young a composer. Bowen allows the development section to subside, avoiding the expected climactic focal point at the onset of the recapitulation and instead keeping his powder dry for the concluding stretto. The recapitulation presents the second subject in the tonic major, enharmonically transliterated to D flat major and thus suggesting such works as Chopin’s Berceuse or the Nocturne Op 27 No 2, as visual and tactile models in the same time signature. The music escalates rapidly towards a tumultuous conclusion.

The ternary second movement recalls some of Chopin’s more songful nocturnes or impromptus, though its cadential patterns again suggest MacDowell. A central Poco agitato leads to a gentle restatement of the main theme at the top of the left hand, accompanied by undulating chordal triplet figuration in the right. A slightly contrived and overblown climax intervenes before the halcyon ending. Ironically, perhaps, the distinguished British pianist Hamish Milne recalls Bowen as having later made no secret of an antipathy towards Liszt, and yet a weakness for ‘obligatory’ climaxes within otherwise soberly restrained statements is a peculiarly Lisztian trait.

The finale hints at the same sources of inspiration, but this time it is the corresponding movement from the little-known First Sonata of Chopin (Op 4) that comes to mind. A chordal first subject leads to a canonically conceived contrasting theme. The strength of Classicism’s hold is evident in Bowen’s choice of a repeated exposition even in this context. The eventual recapitulation leads unexpectedly to an Allegro con fuoco return of the opening movement, still resolutely in the minor mode and concluding with a terse concentration at odds with certain other passages of the work.

Although one could make a credible case for the first three sonatas as successive attempts to realize a single underlying intention, the Piano Sonata No 3 in D minor Op 12 (dated August 1912 in the manuscript) demonstrates a significant advance over its predecessors. Fondness for compound duple time is carried over from the finale of No 1 and first movement of No 2, but, although there is still no shortage of virtuosity, this music achieves greater expressive depth. A perceptible narrative quality now recalls another cornerstone of Chopin’s output in this time signature, his Ballades. The twenty-eight-year-old Bowen succeeds remarkably in sustaining a driving momentum across an imposing span of music while conjuring telling contrasts between the moods of its principal subjects (one restlessly impatient, the other placidly songful). The harmonic language soon suggests a shrewdly selective awareness of Debussy, evidenced by an elliptical shift into C major some twenty-two bars into the movement, at once subtle in conception and vivid in effect. The time signature’s regularity heightens a couple of telling rhythmic displacements in the hectic coda before another terse conclusion.

The second movement, a faintly enigmatic idyll in the key of F and a more extended statement than its counterparts in the earlier works, marks the true onset of a characteristic personal voice. Its opening articulation of the tonic triad leads into a songful ternary movement. A Poco mosso D major central section rises to an opulent but, this time, admirably restrained climactic passage. Here Bowen’s true purpose is to place quiet focus on the progressive withdrawal of the recapitulatory final section. Its later stages suggest a possible source of inspiration for Month’s Mind, one of John Ireland’s more autumnal and valedictory mood pictures for piano solo, written and published in 1935. Hints of the first movement’s harmonic character lend added unity to the unfolding work. The closing bars of this movement feature a striking momentary migration towards A major, opening an abrupt window onto a hitherto unsuspected interior landscape and then quietly closing it again, as in the last of Schubert’s Moments musicaux. By 1912 Bowen’s first three piano concertos and his Viola Concerto lay behind him. The decade since the earlier piano sonatas therefore represents a considerable advance in technical and poetic assurance. This does not wholly prevent the finale from falling a little below the achievement of the preceding movements (hardly a new problem in compositional history): its barnstorming pianism fails wholly to dissemble a certain monotony of harmonic pacing, and one senses that this is something the older Bowen was to manage better, because on a more concentrated scale, in the 24 Preludes (completed before the outbreak of the Second World War but published in 1950) which together constitute arguably his most celebrated work.

Mystery surrounds the Piano Sonata No 4, Op 35 No 3, listed in some sources as a publication (undated) by the firm of Joseph Williams but never found. Allegedly subtitled Sonatina, it is distinct from the Short Sonata in C sharp minor Op 35 No 1 (confusingly, a work given no number by Bowen within the sequence of his sonatas). In effect, however, the Short Sonata takes the place of the elusive ‘No 4’.

Neither the Second nor the Third Sonata bears a dedication, but the Short Sonata is inscribed ‘To my Wife and Son’, somewhat poignantly in view of the composer’s later estrangement from his only child, Philip. It was published first by Swan & Company in 1922 and reissued by Weinberger (as were Nos 5 and 6) in 1996.

The spaciously unhurried first movement is predominantly chordal and suggestive of a barcarolle. Reminiscent initially of Delius or Warlock, it adopts a simple ternary form, fluctuating between the tonic and relative major keys and then migrating more widely in the central passage. The recapitulation presents the major key material in D flat major before a concise, subdued ending restores the minor mode. There follows a gentle idyll in A flat major (enharmonically transformed from the dominant key of the preceding movement). Two balancing episodes feature a bell-like upper melody heard above a shimmer of chordal alternation between the hands and a drone bass. As in much of Bowen’s music, the effect is far subtler and more fastidious aurally than it appears in print. The finale is a scurrying jig, unassuming in its cheerful metrical regularity but intermittently challenging to play with the requisite fleetness. The movement is a close generic cousin to A Romp, the finale to Bowen’s Second Suite for piano and for many years (prior to the current wider revival) his best-known inspiration.

Since the Piano Sonata No 5 in F minor Op 72 was issued by Swan only a year after the Short Sonata, publication years and opus numbers may mislead us as the date of actual composition, prodigious though Bowen’s work rate was. Publication preceded the work’s first performance, given by Bowen in London in January 1924 and favourably received by audience and press alike.

The Sonata’s arresting triadic opening generates material both for the first movement, a spaciously dramatic conception with an angular melodic principal subject, and (in altered guise) for the driving rhythms of the finale. Between lies another fragile reverie whose irregular five quavers to the bar again hint at MacDowell’s lyrical artlessness in similar contexts (though one improbable precedent for a slow movement in quintuple time is Chopin’s early C minor Sonata Op 4). Bowen’s scheme as a whole might suggest an attempt to mirror Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ in entirely personal terms (the two works are in the same key and feature slow movements seemingly cowed into submission by what surrounds them). However, it is here that one finds the beginnings of an acceptable ‘fit’ for the ‘English Rachmaninov’ label. Since Bowen included in his performing repertoire some of the twelve Transcendental Études by Sergei Lyapunov (1859–1924), one wonders whether he knew Lyapunov’s powerful Sonata (also in F minor) Op 27, published by Zimmermann in 1908. There are distinct similarities between the two composers, both in the instinctive brilliance of their piano writing (recorded evidence survives of Lyapunov’s formidable virtuosity in the last of his own Études) and in their tendency to conceive primary material which, already striking in itself, somewhat resists fruitful deconstruction during sonata development sections. In view of the range of colour and texture achieved on more episodic terms by both composers, it would be mean-spirited to criticize this.

Unusual by now among his British contemporaries for coming into his own particularly in last movements, Bowen returns to compound time for an exhilarating virtuoso climax to the Sonata. Summoning greater terseness and astringency in the striking juxtaposition of unrelated triad chord formations, he vividly conveys his own enjoyment of the proceedings. Fittingly, this reminds us that he was a fastidious craftsman who would have shared Medtner’s devotion to a Platonic ideal of composition, attaching no less importance to the spiritual consolations attending its pursuit than to its consummation in performance. In this respect, as in his structural preferences, Bowen remains in a sense an innately Classical type of late-Romantic composer.

Towards the end of the Sonata occur two reminiscences of its opening, one hushed, the other (ffff grandioso) casting all caution to the winds before a storming octave peroration. The coda as a whole bears a striking resemblance to its counterpart in the Sonata Op 25 (1954) by Bernard Stevens (1916–1983), a composer comparably neglected among the ensuing generation.

The Piano Sonata No 6 in B flat minor Op 160 (1961) is Bowen’s final listed opus and appears to have been his final work, despite the many surviving compositions in manuscript. It suggests neither waning vigour nor valediction: indeed, despite its brooding opening (closely related to the B minor Prelude Op 102 No 24 and the Fantasia Op 132), it might be the work of an energetic young man, the last movement especially. Though plagued by anxiety over the health of his wife (who was to outlive him by six years), Bowen was active and purposeful to the last.

In itself, the Sonata’s key immediately suggests affinity to Rachmaninov’s popular Second Sonata, though also to Balakirev (who particularly favoured B flat minor) and Medtner (his Sonata Romantica Op 53 No 1). However, by now the assimilation of harmonic thinking from Debussy, Strauss, Delius and Rachmaninov (to name but a few) is complete and, through lengthy osmosis, individual. No other British composer was writing works of such unbridled but idiomatic virtuosity for the piano either in 1961 or (with the arguable exception of William Baines) half a century earlier. It remains easy to see why Bowen suffered such neglect, especially in the more ascetic, utilitarian artistic climate following his death, but why in his youth he was lauded by the elderly Saint-Saëns as a kindred spirit.

The first movement broadly matches comments already made about the Fifth Sonata. Roughly speaking, in weight and length it balances the ensuing two movements together: a wistfully introspective meditation in which, uncharacteristically, Bowen seems to approach the twilit harmonic world of the mature Frank Bridge, and a headlong Toccata. The latter avoids the unrelieved moto perpetuo approach of many precedents, including Bowen’s own fine example, Op 155 (recorded by Stephen Hough on Hyperion CDA66838), of which passing hints may, however, be heard in the Sonata’s first movement. Here, pyrotechnics are deployed with the lightest of nonchalant humoresque touches, embracing kaleidoscopic variety of colour, gesture and effect (but also impressive textural economy) to form a true showpiece of compositional—as well as performing—virtuosity. Only in the final stages does the wise old hand allow another burst of grandioso chordal weight to intervene. A perfect chose en soi, the movement merits widespread performance on its own as well as in context.

Bowen has by now completed a subtle rehabilitation, evolving from ‘pianist–composer’ (a pianist who happens to compose on the side) to ‘composer–pianist’, honoured in posterity for the enduring virtues and attractions of his works, notwithstanding the documentary evidence of his performing prowess currently made accessible by the Lyrita and APR record companies. Despite its virtuoso demands, this is innately unsensational music. Defending his candour as an adjudicator at a provincial festival, Bowen once reflected wryly that ‘nothing hits harder than the truth’. He embraced this credo with tenacious honesty throughout a long compositional career, true to himself rather than to changing fashion. The results are proving a happy revelation for many contemporary listeners, and it is hoped that Danny Driver’s devoted advocacy will form an invaluable further step in returning at least three forgotten works from obscurity to widespread appreciation.

The author is happy to record his indebtedness in certain factual areas to York Bowen: a Centenary Tribute, by the composer’s pianist pupil, Monica Watson (Thames, 1984).

Francis Pott © 2009

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