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Piano Sonata No 6 in B flat minor, Op 160
1961; probably Bowen's final work

'Bowen: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67751/2)
Bowen: Piano Sonatas
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Movement 1: Moderato e serioso – Allegro risoluto e con fuoco
Movement 2: Intermezzo: Poco lento e tranquillo
Movement 3: Finale alla toccata: Allegro molto e con spirito

Piano Sonata No 6 in B flat minor, Op 160
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.

from notes by Francis Pott © 2009

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