The enterprising British Music Society have released
a welcome recording of Bowen’s string quartets and Phantasy-Quintet.
These are exquisitely conceived scores, rich in melody and exotic colour
with searing emotions in the late-romantic framework which are all receiving
their premiere recordings.
York Bowen’s music is now receiving the recognition
that it richly deserves. Essentially the works are steeped in the traditions
of Brahms and Franck, mainly French in emotion, character and charm,
blended with an English pastoral feel. There is a real eclectic blend
of influences that I hear from composers such as Strauss, Elgar, Rachmaninov,
Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky and Delius. A trusted friend of
mine who is a music critic of long-standing heard these works without
knowing the identity of the composer and thought him to be a Frenchman,
almost certainly a pupil of Franck.
In spite of being remarkably successful during his
early years Bowen’s music fell out of favour with the music establishment
who had shifted towards composers who were at the ‘cutting edge’ of
the latest stylistic and musical developments. Never a progressive composer
the conservative Bowen became marginalised and continued to write in
the late-romantic style of an earlier generation. I acknowledge that
Bowen’s music has little in the way of remarkable invention but this
is more than compensated for by its tendency towards appealing melody,
rich texture and warm colours.
Bowen’s recorded music came like a phoenix from the
flames in 1996 with a ground-breaking and award winning release of a
selection of his solo piano music played by Stephen Hough, on Hyperion
CDA66838. The resurgence has continued this year with two highly rated
recordings both performed by the Endymion Ensemble on the Dutton Epoch
label. The first is a wonderful release of the exceptional Quintet for
Horn and String Quartet, the Rhapsody Trio and Trio in Three movements,
on CDLX 7115 and the second a release of Bowen’s Piano and Cello Sonatas
and a Suite for Violin and Piano, on CDLX 7120.
The Bowen chamber works on this disc are significant
compositions and readers of this review may find the following individual
String Quartet No.2 in D minor Op.41
The opening modulation gives a strangely exotic twist
to the second string quartet. Its relaxed first theme (track 1, point
1:06) has an optimistic confidence, surprising for this dark, minor
key. The harmonies are songful, rich and warm. Bowen cleverly contrasts
sections with some attractive transitions in the work which is mainly
yearning and sentimental in feel. The minor key setting flavours the
languid slow second movement. Again Bowen uses a brief introduction
before his lyrical first subject, a heartfelt song (track 2, point 0:40).
The edge is often taken off the mood by its cloying sentimentality.
This could be partly due to the recording, which has a boxy, nasal sound
at times. Or probably it is just played too slowly. Given the date of
its composition, the end of the First World War, Bowen may be forgiven
for some heart-on-sleeve expression. The music is searing and beautifully
emotional throughout inflected with hints of dark foreboding. After
the stifling middle movement, the cheerful, syncopated start to the
third movement Finale is a breath of fresh air and a return to
the conviction of the first movement. The Archaeus Quartet encounter
intonation problems with a particular passage and Bowen’s muse wanders
a bit during a Janáček-like central
section, but there is so much to enjoy in this lively, French-influenced
String Quartet No.3 in G major Op. 46(b)
The first movement of the third string quartet has
a strongly Delian opening which offers a lyrical, pastoral glow leading
to a Vaughan Williams folksong-like main melody (track 4, point 1:07).
Note the cheery nod too in the direction of Elgar (track 4, point 1:57).
Before its recapitulation there are some surprising melodic and rhythmic
shifts. In this opening movement Bowen’s English roots can be clearly
heard. The free development section begun by the cello (track 4, point
4:38) is staccato, perky and overflowing with ideas. The carefree phrase
of café music is discarded and the music focuses again, to return
to the rich opening theme (track4, point 6:30). Although never published
the third string quartet offers a slow movement melody worthy of Elgar.
This is a step forward from the airless Lento of the second string
quartet. To me, it is flawed by the muted first violin’s flights of
fancy in the middle section, at odds with the mood of the movement as
a whole. Yet, its climax (track 5, points 5:54 - 6:41) produces wonderful
shimmering textures, before a return to the contemplative opening melody
(track 5, point 7:05). This brooding and intensely passionate slow movement
is certainly out of the top drawer. The third movement Finale
has a broad sweep one associates with a string serenade - a style championed
by English composers. It is mercurial, high-spirited and as utterly
charming as a children’s game. I would love to see this movement arranged
for a string orchestra; it would hold its head high alongside Parry,
Warlock or even Elgar.
Phantasy-Quintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet
The unpublished, single movement quintet is a ‘bonus’
work of real quality. To a rocking accompaniment the bass clarinet at
once begins its yearning opening statement. Within a minute the music
changes gear and becomes more complex. The bass clarinet is mellow and
reflective by nature. Bowen’s writing complements this. The ebb and
flow impression given is of movement and water. As in his excellent
Horn Quintet, the solo instrument is not over-used. Rather, its richly
hued colour is expertly and sensitively exploited, matching its burnished
textures to the mood of the piece. When the bass-clarinet makes an appearance
in the score the music seems to hold its breath; an impressive effect.
The viola leads a short, fantasy-like introduction to the middle section
(track 7, point 6:30), before a fast, rhythmic Allegro con spirito
(track 5, point 7:25) offers contrast. This lively section is held in
check superbly to allow a repeat of the opening ideas (track 7, point
10:22). But the journey the music has taken has enriched the sounds.
In the closing bars, the music drifts away on a calm sea. The Phantasy-Quintet
possesses a good balance with an ideal length, leaving me not wanting
the proceedings to end. Fertile ideas grow but do not outstay their
welcome and the work certainly stands repeated listening.
Tantalisingly these chamber works from the Archaeus
Quartet demand the listener to explore Bowen’s scores further. Thankfully
as Bowen was a prolific composer there is much music which has yet to
find its way into the record catalogues. I look forward to discovering
potential future releases of substantial chamber works such as the Fantasie
for Four Violas, the Phantasie Trio, the Horn Quartet, the Poem for
Viola, Harp and Organ and the single movement Septet for Clarinet, Horn
and String Quartet. Unfortunately the list does not include Bowen’s
first string quartet Op.27 circa. 1908. The whereabouts of the unpublished
score is unknown; it may have been destroyed.
The Archaeus Quartet together with bass-clarinettist
Timothy Lines clearly love this music and their interpretations are
deeply felt despite a few technical problems. The sound quality is acceptable
however the recording is perhaps too warm at the expense of some clarity
and there is a strange boxy-like feel to the sound that I just cannot
put my finger on. One cannot help thinking how these works would have
sounded in the hands of crack chamber outfits such as the Chilingirian
Quartet, the Belcea Quartet, the Endymion Quartet and the Nash Ensemble.
I urge listeners to indulge themselves with this chamber
music for its passion, luxuriant lyrical charm and impeccable construction
and cherish the experience of hearing these recordings for the first
time. This is wonderful and rewarding late-Romantic English music that
demands to be judged for its quality not as a mere curio from the age
in which it was written. Seventy or eighty years on, these trends matter
little to the CD-listening public who can marvel that such rich English
music has lain undiscovered; until now! In short this is a most revealing,
attractive and rewarding release and is essential listening for all
lovers of late-romantic English music.
See also reviews
by Rob Barnett, Lewis Foreman and Michael Bryant
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