> BOWEN String Quartets [RB][LF][MB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
String Quartet No. 2 in D minor Op. 41 (c.1918) [28.29]
String Quartet No. 3 in G major Op. 46(b) (1919) [27.04]
Phantasy Quintet for bass clarinet and string quartet Op. 93 (1932) [14.02]
Timothy Lines (bass clarinet)
Archaeus Quartet
rec Recital Room, Tonbridge School, Kent, 16, 18, 20, Dec 2001

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Before starting this review I have an interest to declare. I am a long-standing member of the British Music Society (founded in 1977), the editor of its quarterly newsletter and, as editor, am an ex officio member of the Society's Executive.

This is the eleventh BMS CD and has been steered through from the original germ to finished product, by the BMS's one-time Chairman and now Recording Manager, John Talbot. John has played an estimable role in the renaissance of British music. You may well know his name as the pianist in the Chandos recording of the Moeran Violin Sonata. It was John who was in large and indispensable part the true maker of the Moeran centenary celebrations. Later he steered the Maggini Quartet into their Moeran quartets recording with Naxos.

Bowen was yet another of the generation of composers whose reputation was laid waste by the Great War. Joseph Holbrooke is in the same benighted category although at least he has a handful of Marco Polo discs to carry his banner high. Others were not so lucky (quite apart from those who were killed like George Butterworth and Cecil Coles). Reputations virtually erased include the Birmingham-born composer, William Fenney.

Bowen's two surviving string quartets date from just after the War years. The first quartet seems not to have survived. The Second was dedicated to the Philharmonic Quartet (1915-1924) an ensemble that numbered Eugene Goossens as second violin. The quartet encloses a contemplative movement between an impetuous Allegro assai that for me touches on streams we now associate with Korngold and with Moeran and a Presto finale with jig patterning, some Tchaikovskian pizzicato and the same exultant urgency we associate with early Frank Bridge before the wormwood closed in. Bowen conjures in the finale an intensely original hailstorm of high-lying lyrical figuration. This is a superbly rounded and confident work in which the music bowls yearning along; very impressive. My natural inclination was to try to place much of this work in a Continental milieu. Korngold's, Schoeck's and Weigl's string quartets are natural companions.

The Third Quartet gives up its secrets a shade less readily. Its surface attractions are not as immediate as its predecessor. There are Moeran-like hints (3.12 tr. 4) in the wistful but flowing allegro moderato. After an even more introspective poco lento the allegro assai finale bursts in with the jig-like Dumky character of the Bax First Quartet laced with a touch of music-hall. This contrasts with densely rapturous Howells-like episodes - lithely racing and ecstatic.

Twelve years on and we come to the Phantasy-Quintet. The quartet writing is far more subtle. This is a haunting little work evoking kindly ghosts and mellifluous elegies. The hushed shivering start echoes the Fenlands' mystery of Bowen's Horn Quintet of five years previously. From 7.20 onwards the music displays ardour and determination adorably underpinned by the deep Mozartian serenading of the bass clarinet. The last several minutes seem to be a regretful farewell whether by Bowen or to someone else I do not know but the impression is very strong.

It is much to the credit of the excellent Archaeus that they have recorded for Lorelt a selection of string quartets by Amy Beach, Ethel Smyth and Susan Spain-Dunk. This will join their other quartet recordings: Salzedo, Keal and Roditi.

The present BMS recording is a compellingly desirable addition to the shelves of those who, a couple of year ago, bought the Society's British cello sonatas disc - a CD playing for well over 80 minutes. Not for the Society or John Talbot a disc with all the usual suspects. On the contrary everything was (as here) new to disc. Those cello sonatas are by Ernest Walker, York Bowen and John Foulds. The Foulds, for me, made the CD an essential buy. The crusading artists are Jo Cole (cello) and John Talbot (piano).

The engineering in the present case is in the tried and true hands of Mike Skeet who delivers a sound that is both bold and subtle. The production is by John Talbot who also wrote the liner notes.

There is no plethora of Bowen CDs. If you can still trace it there is Marie-Catherine Girod's compelling complete Bowen Preludes (24 in all the major and minor keys - a sequence eulogised by Sorabji). This is on the Opès 3D French label issued circa 1992. Hyperion have a selection of the piano music from Stephen Hough - and extremely well thought of it is too. Quite recently Dutton's Epoch label issued CDLX 7115 with the Horn Quintet, Rhapsody Trio and Trio in Three Movements played by the Endymion Ensemble. This features Philip Fowke.

This clutch of Bowen recordings is a pitifully small handful and I hope it will expand. There are still plenty of Bowen world premiere recordings to be made. The four piano concertos ought really to stand a chance in Hyperion's 'romantic piano concerto' series. I wonder if ASV could be interested in recording the two string concertos - one each for violin (premiered by Marjorie Hayward - not Howard as the liner notes have it - at the Queens Hall Proms in 1920) and viola (given by Tertis at the RPS concerts in London and recently revived). There is at least one violin sonata and several viola sonatas. The Second Symphony features on ClassicO.

What next from the BMS? A personal hope list would include the piano music of William Fenney, Greville Cooke (his Cormorant Crag is surely worth hearing) and Reginald Sacheverell Coke as well as the two string quartets of Eugene Goossens. I rather hope that someone will look at the chamber music of Joseph Holbrooke including the two later violin sonatas - the Romantic from circa 1920 (a version of the so-called Grasshopper violin concerto) and the sinuously lyrical late 1920s Sonata-Orientale. I suppose it is too much to hope that Holbrooke's two fantasy piano sonatas from the mid/late-1930s might also be taken up?

A compellingly desirable addition to any open-minded collection. Bowen's chamber music is fresh and for most of the time quite unlike that of his British contemporaries.
Rob Barnett

And a further view from Lewis Foreman

York Bowen has been one of those British composers largely active before the war whom enthusiasts have long wanted to explore, but apart from a number of sonatas and suites, notably for wind instruments, and a distinguished corpus of piano music, his music has failed to find a champion on CD. While such things as the Cello Sonata (BMS 423CD) and the Suite in Three Movements for piano duet (BMS cassette BMS 414) issued by the British Music Society have reminded us of something of what we have been missing, it was surely the revival of the piano music, including the 24 preludes in all keys, first by Marie-Catherine Girod in 1994 (on 3DCL 3D8012) and then Stephen Hough’s remarkable piano programme for Hyperion (CDA 66838) that re-launched his music for today’s CD audience. Now there seems to be a rush to get on the bandwagon, with a fine Dutton chamber CD and the now issued ClassicO recording of the Second Symphony.

This pioneering BMS programme fills gaps in our knowledge of Bowen with the string quartets (the first quartet appears to be lost), substantial works which for reasons I cannot completely explain are unknown. They are coupled with the Phantasy-Quintet for the unusual combination of bass clarinet and string quartet which some readers may remember being played at the Royal Academy of Music in a Bowen Centenary concert in 1984. This is all immensely well-made music, rewarding for both players and listeners, and despite the Second Quartet being a Carnegie Competition winner in 1922, all three pieces have only enjoyed literally one or two performances in seventy or eighty years. Indeed, the performance of the third quartet recorded here may well be a world premiere.

It seems to me the plum is undoubtedly the atmospheric Bass-clarinet Quintet, an ensemble which Bowen uses with great sympathy and invention. This is very much a Cobbett-style fantasy (or phantasie), a continuous arch of nearly a quarter hour duration encompassing a variety of tempi and moods. The outgoing Third Quartet, with its quasi-folk-like materials - slow and atmospheric in the first and slow movements, all dancing open-air in the finale, is good too. Both quartets have finales in which Bowen uses pizzicato with fine throw-away effect, and the more serious intent of the Second Quartet is lightened by its finale, one of those 1920s movements which seems on the verge of turning into scherzando light music, surely something to do with Bowen’s Academy training where his fellow students had been Eric Coates and Montague Phillips. But otherwise, in a period of striking individualists it is difficult to pick any passage, as one could with Walton or Vaughan Williams, and say it is definitively by Bowen.

Nevertheless enjoyable scores, and the players’ bold, thrusting performances present the music with conviction.

Lewis Foreman

And a further view from Michael Bryant with particular emphasis on the bass clarinet work (with acknowledgement to Clarinet and Saxophone).

This is the first recording of the Phantasy Quintet. It has been rarely heard and remains unpublished. It was written between about 1933 and 1936. We know that the composer was living at the address in Finchley Road, London NW8, between these dates. I am speculating somewhat, but the bass clarinet (and saxophone) specialist Walter Lear was possibly the first to play the work and a recording of his medium wave Third Programme broadcast has been preserved among the composer’s collection of tapes, now in the Royal Academy of Music Library. It has also been broadcast by Ian Mitchell and played by Sarah Watts at the RAM in about 1999. Dennis Smiley has played it in the USA.

This fine work is in one movement with several sections and changes in tempo. Its form and the title Phantasy derive from the competitions initiated in 1905 by Walter Cobbett, the managing director of the Scandinavian Belting Company, who was also an enthusiastic violinist and played at the South Place Sunday Concerts. He also edited and commissioned contributions for his enduring monument, Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929). Over forty works received prizes under the auspices of this competition. In 1905 the list headed by William Hurlstone and Frank Bridge. The Phantasy Quintet begins and ends calmly and quietly, but gives the bass clarinet an uncompromising and often high flying line almost throughout. The predominant mood is one of ineffable but disturbed sadness and the effect is as spellbinding as Martha Schweitzer’s remarkable arrangement of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht for seven winds; (wind quintet, cor anglais and bass clarinet). Martha Schweitzer is first bassoonist in the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra). The sleeve notes quote a remark by Jonathan Frank (Musical Opinion, July 1957) that ‘this is surely the only work for solo bass clarinet in existence’. This might have been true if applied to British music. When Walter Lear recorded a movement to demonstrate the bass clarinet for HMV’s Guide to the Instruments of thc Orchestra in the 1940s he chose the Elégie for cello and piano by Fauré. By now, the list of chamber music for bass clarinet is very long indeed. A useful list can be found at: http://www.newmusicorg/bassbib.html notwithstanding, the Phantasy Quintet was predated by Janacek’s Mladí (written in 1924 and played at the Wigmore Hall, without programme notes or publicity, during the general strike on 6th May 1926) and Schoeck’s Sonata Op 41 (1927-8). It hardly needs to be said that the repertoire for bass clarinet has been much increased as a result of activities of Harry Sparnaay and Josef Horak. Quintets for bass clarinet and string quartet have been written by Barry Anderson, Jan Bartos, Giacomo Bellucci, Frits Belis, Jim Fox, Ernst Hess, Tristan Keuris and Manfred Nedbal among others.

Timothy Lines studied at the Royal College of Music where he is now Professor of Clarinet. He has played with the London Sinfonietta, London Winds and the Nash Ensemble. He can be heard, with Colin Lawson and Michael Harris, playng basset horn trios by Mozart and Anton Stadler on a new compact disc (ASV CD GAU 246). The compact disc of music by York Bowen was made by Mike Skeet, who was John Denman’s recording engineer on the British and Ensemble Music Labels (BML 002, BML 009 and EML 008) and also at John Denman’s recordings of all of Spohr’s Clarinet Concertos at Watford Town Hall in 1994 and 1996 (Carlton).

This is a most welcome issue and a major milestone for the bass clarinet. It includes two string quartets by York Bowen. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Michael Bryant
Mr Bryant’s review appears with acknowledgement to the author and to Clarinet and Saxophone. It appeared in the Summer 2002 edition of Clarinet and Saxophone.


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