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Piano Concerto No 4 in A minor, Op 88
1929; first performed on BBC Radio by Bowen & the BBC Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult on 19 March 1937

'Bowen: Piano Concertos' (CDA67659)
Bowen: Piano Concertos
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67659 
Movement 1: Moderato serioso – Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Poco lento, sostenuto – Poco più andante
Movement 3: Allegro energico e risoluto – Moderato serioso

Piano Concerto No 4 in A minor, Op 88
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.

from notes by Glen Ballard © 2008

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Details for CDA67659 track 3
Poco lento, sostenuto – Poco più andante
Recording date
31 August 2007
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Bowen: Piano Concertos (CDA67659)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: November 2008
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