In terms of variety of repertoire this may prove to
be the golden age for recorded music. Recordings such as these Bowen
chamber works would have been unthinkable even less than ten years ago.
Thankfully enterprising record company Dutton in their Epoch series
are using their niche marketing skills to record the unfamiliar music
of talented British composers who have fallen out of favour.
I frequently hear the word rehabilitated used
for the composer York Bowen with regard to the recent trend towards
recording his works; works that are often out of print and usually receiving
recordings for the first time. I prefer to view recordings of Bowen’s
music as being ‘restored’ to the repertoire, for his scores are more
than mere curios wheeled out occasionally for historical interest.
Once fêted by the music establishment, Bowen’s
tonal and conservative music with an elegant lyricism became unfashionable
after the Great War for much the same reason as that of Elgar and Bantock.
Music had rapidly moved on and the late English romantics of that generation
had become marginalised having to compete with the growing enthusiasm
for composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky et al. Bowen
had become a victim of a new fashion as he was still composing music
in the manner of an earlier generation and consequently his music swiftly
moved into virtual obscurity. After eighty or so years perhaps we are
more able to reassess Bowen’s music for its innate quality rather than
for the dynamic of the era in which it was written.
Much of Bowen’s substantial output is yet to be recorded
and it is satisfying to have an increasing number of his works available
on disc. Dutton Digital’s Epoch label are to be firmly congratulated
for leading the pack with their chamber music releases. My interest
in Bowen was sparked by a revelatory recording, in 1996, of his piano
works by Stephen Hough on Hyperion CDA66838. Now just like buses, highly
rated recordings of Bowen’s chamber music, have come along all at once
with the British Music Society releasing the string quartets Nos. 2
and 3 and Phantasy quintet by the Archaeus Quartet on BMS426CD and again
on Dutton Epoch with the sonatas for violin and cello and suite for
violin and piano by the Endymion Ensemble on CDLX7120.
For those not familiar with Bowen’s music who are curious
to know what is in store for them you can expect Brahmsian chamber music
influences. This music is unashamedly romantic in personality and ambience,
brooding and emotional with a frequent haunting and sensual beauty.
Furthermore, at times, I sense a lyrical and emotional connection to
Bowen’s music in Walton’s violin sonata and violin concerto; works that
are generally considered more sophisticated.
The Rhapsody Trio from 1926 was premiered with the
composer on piano with the virtuoso sisters May and Beatrice Harrison
on violin and cello. The trio is composed in the single movement Phantasy
form with contrasting sections as promoted around that time by music
patron W.W. Cobbett for his chamber music competitions and commissions.
This work is satisfying and well-crafted with abundant use of rippling
arpeggios particularly in the opening section Molto sostenuto. The
sustained lyricism evident throughout the trio could easily be by Rachmaninov
The instantly appealing and lyrical Trio in Three Movements
sounds like a fusion, at times, of the lyrical sound-worlds of Rachmaninov
and Walton. Particularly successful is the energetic first movement
Allegro risoluto where the cello and violin are in a deep conversation,
with the piano only intermittently making its presence known. Lasting
eight minutes the delightful and dreamy Adagio shows Bowen at
his most passionate with a glorious ethereal lyricism.
The brooding and haunting beauty of the highly romantic
horn quintet makes one demand to know why this work has not been established
as a staple part of the chamber music repertoire. Composed in 1927 the
horn is prominent from the start and maintains its dominance over the
string quartet throughout the work. Bowen was an accomplished horn player
(as well as violist and a successful concert pianist) and uses his personal
insights to great advantage in this most lyrical of compositions. I
defy the listener not to be moved by the searing emotions of the Andante
espressivo slow movement, which is one of the highlights of this
My eager anticipation to hear these Bowen chamber works
for the first time was matched by the unadulterated pleasure and satisfaction
from experiencing them. The Endymion Ensemble gives absolutely top class
performances with the added bonus of a warm high quality sound. This
release is certainly the equal to or perhaps even superior to those
which comprise the prestigious Naxos British chamber music series by
the Maggini Quartet.