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.
from notes by Francis Pott © 2013