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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH


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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Quintet in C minor for horn and string quartet op.85 (1927) [26:02]
Rhapsody Trio in A minor for violin, cello and piano op.80 (1926) [14:22]
Trio in Three Movements, for violin, cello and piano op.118 (1945) [23:21]
Endymion Ensemble
Krysia Osostowicz: violin
Fiona McCapra: violin (op.85 only)
Catherine Manson: viola (op.85 only)
Jane Salmon: cello
Stephen Stirling: horn (op.85 only)
Michael Dussek: piano (op.80 and op. 118 only)
Recorded at the All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, U.K. 24-26 April 2001 DDD
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7115 [63:53]

 

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 or Barber.

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 release.

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.

Michael Cookson

 


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