Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Andante semplice
Movement 3: Allegro con fuoco – Più lento – Più mosso e con fuoco
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.
from notes by Francis Pott © 2009