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Hyperion Records

CDA67991/2 - Bowen: The complete works for violin and piano
The Embankment and Cleopatra's Needle at Night, London (c1910) by George Hyde Pownall (1876-1932)
Private Collection / Bourne Gallery, Reigate / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67991/2
Recording details: April 2012
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2013
Total duration: 116 minutes 46 seconds

GRAMOPHONE 'CHOICE'

'The E minor Sonata is a mature work of striking concision and self-confidence, brimful of memorable, red-blooded invention … there's a wholly infectious conviction, spontaneity and panache about these superbly accomplished performances that lend them special distinction. Chloë Hanslip plays with the most enviably sweet and subtly variegated tone throughout and she forms an outstandingly compelling partnership with Danny Driver, whose irreproachably eager and stylish pianism is a joy to encounter' (Gramophone)

'One idiomatic opportunity after another is seized on by Chloë Hanslip with panache, poise, and laser-like accuracy' (BBC Music Magazine)

'York Bowen has enjoyed a revival of late, not least thanks to the pianist Danny Driver, a specialist in this 'lost', late-Romantic British repertoire. He and violinist Chloe Hanslip here tackle the complete violin repertoire … the Violin Sonata in E minor's soaring first movement brings to mind Elgar's sonata in the same key … Bowen is frequently compared to Rachmaninov, which gives you an idea, up to a point, of his musical landscape. Hanslip and Driver give full rein to the wistful, lyrical mood' (The Observer)

'An outstanding new contribution to Hyperion's ongoing Bowen series' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The E minor Sonata Op 112, at once terse and varied and convincingly violinistic, is surely the finest piece here; it ought to be heard often … where it would hold its own in more recognizably exalted company, and the two artists here offer an utterly convincing rendition … full marks to the Hyperion engineers for an ideal sound' (International Record Review)

'Hanslip, now 25, has long outgrown the child prodigy status that saw her 13-year-old self become the youngest ever recording artist to be signed to Warner Classics UK. Still, even back then it was obvious that she was the real deal rather than some marketing department's poster girl-of-the-moment, thanks to the remarkable maturity of her interpretations, and a tone that combined sweet warmth with gripping strength and attack. Her recent discs for Hyperion's Romantic Violin Concerto series have been superbly rendered introductions to lesser-known repertoire gems, and this stand-alone disc is equally enjoyable. Elegant, lyrical, sprightly and passionate, she delivers Bowen's fluidly brilliant music with enormous style, from the caprice and virtuosic idiosyncrasy of the harmonics-laden Valse harmonique of 1917, to the romantic, string-biting power of the Violin Sonata in E minor of 1945. Danny Driver, who collaborates regularly with Hanslip on the concert platform, accompanies her on disc for the first time here with sensitivity, vibrancy and colour' (Sinfini.com)

The complete works for violin and piano
CD1
Lento  [5'25]
CD2
Melody  [3'35]
Allegro assai  [9'31]

Young virtuoso Chloë Hanslip and York Bowen specialist Danny Driver present Bowen’s complete works for violin and piano. Many of these works have never been recorded or indeed published before, and have been excavated from the archives by Driver himself. This double album is therefore a valuable resource for admirers of a composer whom Hyperion has done so much to champion through recordings. This body of work includes juvenilia, miniatures (written with an eye to academic performance during Bowen’s years as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, but all impressive enough in quality to be concert works), his two Violin Sonatas, a Suite and a number of single-movement works. All show a superb composer of chamber music, a genuine original with a performer’s ear.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Edwin Yorke Bowen was born on 22 February 1884 at Crouch Hill, London, the third son of the founder of Bowen & McKechnie, whisky distillers. 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 and where he became a piano student of Tobias Matthay. At this point he dropped his baptismal name and the ‘e’ of ‘Yorke’, though certain of his reissued or newly published scores present him as ‘E. York Bowen’.

York 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 Royal Academy of Music as a professor of piano. He died suddenly in November 1961. His compositional idiom had remained largely unchanged since his first successes. In this respect he invites comparison with his exiled Russian counterpart Nikolai Medtner, who spent his later years in North London and whose G minor Sonata, Op 22, featured in Bowen’s repertoire, but whom Bowen appears never to have met.

While Medtner railed often against a hated but persistent ‘Russian Brahms’ sobriquet, in due course Bowen picked up an equally inaccurate tag as ‘the English Rachmaninov’. This obscures an eclectic breadth of other interests, while also overlooking the fact that Bowen was already becoming noted in London before Rachmaninov’s celebrated Piano Concerto No 2 was heard there in May 1902. By then Bowen had already written his first two piano sonatas. The Rachmaninov influence arguably detectable in certain of Bowen’s mature works took some time to percolate. Even then it remained intermittent and applicable more to broad external characteristics than to particulars of idiom. Moreover, Bowen began to show a variable but significant debt in other directions, including Richard Strauss but also Debussy, with his characteristic use of augmented triad formations as a consequence of the whole-tone scale.

A breadth of first-hand instrumental knowledge, doubtless the legacy of the Scots Guards, informs Bowen’s large chamber output, rendering its recent revival a pleasurable surprise for performers as much as for listeners. Bowen’s writing is frequently challenging, yet unfailingly practical in its matching of technical and physical means to expressive effect. Bowen was first and foremost a virtuoso pianist, instinctively attuned to an étude repertoire characterized by consistency of musical figuration, and one quickly notices the sheer fluency of movement and patterning in his music. One enjoyable consequence is that, where many contemporaneous composers of a more pastoral, folksong-inspired tendency struggled to maintain momentum in a finale, Bowen came into his own with undisguised relish, exploiting an inheritance of rondo-cum-sonata form to toe-tapping, smile-inducing effect. Receptive to elevated salon fare, he possessed the subtlety to blur its distinction from the loftier aspirations of the concert hall. Accordingly, one may detect relatively little true difference in voice between slighter works and larger ones. In any case, the latter are often surprisingly compact—expansive in manner, not length. Their supposed ‘development’ sections sometimes replace organic evolution of ideas with contrasting episodes having more divertissement than cumulative intent about them. The result is a kind of ebb and flow of high-minded emotional intensity; a terrain which is candid, rewarding and harmonically sophisticated, but where a search for actual profundity is apt to miss the point.

The unpublished Romance from 1900 designates its sixteen-year-old composer on the manuscript as ‘Edwin Y. Bowen’. Its contemplative manner suggests precocious anticipation of such salon staples as the celebrated Méditation from Massenet’s opera Thaïs (1903); yet its harmonic range extends well beyond any such comparison. A rapt Lento in D flat major leads to a poco più mosso in which, nodding at the textural give-and-take of classical sonata convention, fluid semiquavers pass eventually from the pianist’s left hand to the violin part. An unexpectedly vehement central climax is reached via a series of modulations, briefly reigniting before a spacious recapitulation of the opening section. The final stages make valedictory reference to the central passage, now accommodated in the ‘home’ key.

Bowen’s years as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, provincial adjudicator and examiner consolidated a pragmatic streak already embedded by varied instrumental grounding. Many of his later miniatures were written either to order or with a knowing eye to didactic purposes, yet were served well enough by his melodic grace and musical craftsmanship to stand the test of time as unassuming concert items.

Published by Swan & Co in 1923 and later reissued by Josef Weinberger, the Melody for the G string was conceived for violin or viola playing in the same octave register. Accordingly it confines itself to darker hues and a modest range of pitch, its technical challenges arising from its key, G flat major. Assuming an accompanist of professional standing, Bowen is able to embellish and elevate a simple conceit by pianistic and harmonic means. The result is a gently affecting statement in ternary form and triple time, dominated by the rhythm presented in the violinist’s opening notes.

Within a compressed ternary structure, the Albumleaf hints at retrospective wistfulness beneath its capricious surface. It was published in 1927 by ‘The Associated Board of the RAM and RCM’, founded in 1889 but destined to acquire its more compact ‘ABRSM’ styling only in 1933.

The Melody was issued by the same publisher in 1928 and reprinted in 1981. Although offering no alternative version for viola, and therefore migrating more freely upwards in pitch than Melody for the G string, in every other respect it conforms to the description of that work.

The Allegretto Op 105, in G major, was conceived for violin or cello and was issued by Oxford University Press in 1940. The ‘flattened seventh’ modality of its initial theme hints at folk-based inspiration, but chromaticisms soon creep in. The theme’s ponderous rate of harmonic change gently subverts the violinist’s whimsical aspirations. A more sustained central passage in C major affords contrast before the recapitulation.

The Serenade was written on 24 April 1917. When one considers that Bowen had been invalided home from France only the year before, having witnessed things of which he seems barely to have spoken subsequently, this introspective, apparently anodyne music takes on more disturbing possibilities. On the surface, the Serenade is simply a poetic study in violin double-stopping. It proceeds doggedly but with a kind of pre-echo of the bleak, 'Alt Wien' nostalgia conjured in waltzes by such pianist-composers as Leopold Godowsky and Mischa Levitzki, where the passing of an old order is evoked in music of poignant understatement. Bowen seems to have viewed composition itself in a generally Platonic light, valuing the spiritual consolations attending its pursuit and arguably setting out in his work to articulate his own sheer love of music, rather than feeling any specific compulsion to lay bare some inner self. But some may sense in the commonplaces of the Serenade a latent tension, with the romantic escapist’s wish not to bear ‘very much reality’ coming under pressure from what Dante Gabriel Rossetti called ‘… a shaken shadow intolerable, / Of ultimate things unuttered the frail screen’.

Valse harmonique was composed five days after the Serenade, on 29 April 1917. Its title refers not to harmonic content, but to techniques whereby a violinist may lightly touch the string at various points, thereby shortening its sounding length and creating artificial overtones possessing a variety of pitches and distinctive timbres. The hurdy-gurdy effect of Bowen’s expert string-writing here complements the melancholic persistence of the Serenade in a wan, ashen expressionism disconcertingly at odds with the insouciance of the idiom itself. Whatever the true tone of this music, it would be surprising if Bowen had remained wholly free from occasional inner demons during 1917.

The Song and Bolero were both written on 22 January 1949 at Brookwood, home of their dedicatee, Marion Keyte-Perry, a retired headmistress whom Bowen’s biographer Monica Watson describes in notably waspish terms. The Song, with its gently undulating semiquaver accompaniment and elusive sidesteps of tonal direction, suggests recent study of Fauré. Unrepentantly backward-looking, it is a soulful cantilena in F major, cast in ternary form but registering as a continuum of restrained poetic meditation. The A minor Bolero affects only the most token nod at anything Spanish (time-honoured Flamenco modal colouring makes one comically incongruous appearance early on), and is effectively a Polonaise instead. After a more lyrical central passage in F major a reprise, consolidating more content within the tonic key, brings the Bolero to a rousing but concise conclusion.

The manuscript of the unpublished Violin Sonata in B minor Op 7 records June 1902 as its completion date. Bowen’s first two piano sonatas were written at around the same time, with No 1 appearing in print in 1902 as his opus 6—although the manuscript of so-called ‘No 2’ is dated 1901. The first Piano Sonata is in the same key as this early Violin Sonata, and there are other common elements. However, the sonata for piano is an expansive four-movement conception, owing much to its B minor forerunner by Chopin, while the Violin Sonata consists only of a pair of contrasted movements, and may even be the compressed remnant of some larger initial conception. That much is suggested by the curious tonal scheme of the first movement, which moves early to D major and then, to all intents and purposes, stays there. A fourth movement would presumably transplant some of this material to B major, ending the work in a transformed version of the home key. Instead, Bowen’s second movement attempts the difficult task of unifying a driving scherzo with recurrences of the first movement’s broad main theme (seemingly borrowed unawares from Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture). Whether he set out initially to do this or to write a conventional scherzo and slow movement, deferring completion of a tonal scheme until the end of a fourth movement, remains uncertain. A few changes of key in the scherzo do sound provisional and undeniably get into tight corners. An air of unfinished business hovers; yet the ardour and ambition of this precocious effort must be applauded, likewise the innate fluency of Bowen’s writing for both instruments. Noteworthy too is the work’s introduction, with its hints of the Vorspiel from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Bowen tended to hedge bets over opus numbers, possibly viewing them as subject to later vagaries of publishers. A number of pieces duly appeared in print minus any definitive figure. The Suite in D minor Op 28 is one of several numbered hypothetically, with a disclaimer, by Monica Watson in the work list that accompanied her centenary tribute book on Bowen in 1984. The Suite was published (with a title page inexplicably in French) by Schott in 1909, the year when Bowen became an extremely youthful professor at the RAM. A sycophantic dedication to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler shows a none-too-subtle eye for smart career moves.

The opening Mouvement de sonate features an expansive introduction and a principal first subject some twenty bars in. As in the later E minor Sonata, Bowen blurs the ending of his second subject, moving fluidly into a development section which is both tonally nomadic and more extended than its counterpart. The wisdom of this is revealed when Bowen reverses his principal subjects in the recapitulation, since there is little or no redundant material from earlier on to present any obstacle. The movement is reminiscent of the monumental D minor Piano Sonata by Bowen’s close friend Benjamin Dale, with many similarities in both rhythmic character (not least the rising fourth at the opening) and pianistic detail. There are also several shared nods towards Strauss. Dale’s prodigious work, dedicated to Bowen, would have been fresh in mind, since Bowen himself had performed it in November 1905.

The Barcarolle’s introductory link between D minor and A flat major may be a conscious allusion to the similar device opening the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 (though that was added later, Rachmaninov having actually started his concerto in the middle and gone on to tackle the first movement last). The Barcarolle is extended but restrained, its few moments of overt display concerning the piano more than the violin.

The playful theme of the Humoresque slips typically upwards by sleight of hand from E to F major and back down again. Easy continuity combines with expertly variegated texture, the more robust moments hinting at extension of first movement material. Bowen routinely excelled in this type of scherzo substitute, with its light, deft interplay and trademark quicksilver ending, vanishing here like the bursting of a bubble into thin air.

The Finale hints at Dale’s, which it visually resembles. Its themes are designed to sound like rhythmic transformations of their first-movement counterparts, although literal cross-reference is confined to a few salient notes. Bowen shows seasoned awareness that symphonic recapitulation may sometimes be an art merely of successful illusion. The major-key second subject, first heard in F, ultimately recurs in D, transforming the sovereign tonic minor and enabling the work to end in a rush of optimism. This typically satisfying peroration rests upon a real sense of virtuoso partnership on equal terms. The work’s obscurity until recent years is greatly regrettable. It makes for easier listening than Dale’s admittedly fine Piano Sonata, never courting the same danger of collapse under the sheer weight of its own complexity.

In 1905 the wealthy industrialist Walter Wilson Cobbett instigated a competition for new chamber compositions. Another followed in 1907, and then a series of annual commissions, each for a fresh instrumental medium. A prescribed part of every title was the word 'phantasy', spelt with a Greek slant in deference to the wishes of Cobbett, who also hoped that composers would hark back to sixteenth-century string fantasia forms. Pieces were to be cast in linked sections of equal significance, unified by common thematic material to create an integrated form. Bowen received Cobbett’s commission in 1911 and responded with the Phantasie in E minor Op 34 (his own spelling, yet more idiosyncratic than Cobbett’s, may have arisen through misconceiving the singular from reading the plural). After a declamatory, recitative-like opening, the work launches into an expansive Allegro, abating for a lyrical secondary idea in the relative major key. This escalates into central development material, mostly exploring a ‘dactylic’ (long-short-short) rhythm heard originally towards the end of the first subject. Shared characteristics of both themes are carried over into a B major slow ‘movement’ which arises in place of any conventional first-movement recapitulation. This leads into a scherzo, initially reminiscent of its counterpart in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1. Here Bowen enjoys himself to the extent that the finale, required to close off unfinished business from the opening ‘movement’ and confer conclusive unification on the proceedings, runs out of space—or more probably, pace Cobbett’s prescriptions, time. This serves as a rousing major-key coda to an enjoyable if slightly lopsided work, one which may well have been a valuable empirical step on Bowen’s journey towards maturity.

Although comparisons of Bowen with Rachmaninov may mislead, both were composers whose fundamental ‘language’ altered little, instead modifying itself simply by becoming more tersely and acerbically concentrated; as one sees with Bowen by placing side by side the respective first sections or movements of the Violin Sonata in E minor Op 112 (written in 1945 and published the following year) and the earlier Phantasie. The E minor Sonata admirably matches expansiveness of manner to economies of form and duration. After a dramatic introduction and first subject, a concise but open-ended secondary idea leads into central development. A chromatically discursive harmonic style does not generally lend itself to development founded upon the undermining of a sonata exposition’s opposing main keys, which may have become well buried already. Accordingly, Bowen ensures cohesion by keeping development brief and the recurrent rhythms of his contrasted main ideas plainly in view. A compressed reprise leads to the briefest of codas and a peremptory conclusion.

The calculated effect is of slamming on the brakes almost too soon, leaving unexpended momentum which then casts its shadow across the opulent yet subdued slow movement. The finale, one of Bowen’s most successful, seems to hint at the opening theme of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 in a secondary subject demanding barbaric intensity on the violin’s G string, but more generally the music evokes a kind of reinvented Mephisto Waltz, where high spirits and something fleetingly more macabre intermingle as they whirl by. A spectacular coda gains from Bowen’s expertise on both instruments. The slower, declamatory piano rhythms of the work’s opening reappear, cross-cutting the violin’s semiquavers so that, again, brakes seem to be applied—then released for a turbo-charged rush to the finish.

Francis Pott © 2013

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