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 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. His scores that spanned two world wars are more than
mere curios wheeled out occasionally for historical interest.
In fact the Horn quintet is a masterwork and friends and
I am amazed that it is not a major part of the chamber music repertoire.
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
English late-romantics of that generation had become marginalised
having to compete with the growing enthusiasm for progressive
composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky et al. Bowen
had quickly become a victim of the 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 we should now be 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 BMS 426CD 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 an
eclectic range of influences such as Franck, Liszt, Rachmaninov,
Tchaikovsky, Delius and Strauss. This music is unashamedly romantic
in personality and ambience, brooding and emotional with a frequent
haunting and sensual beauty. It may be my imagination that at
times, I sensed a lyrical and emotional connection to Bowen’s
music with Walton’s contemporaneous violin sonata and violin
concerto; scores that would undoubtedly be considered as more
sophisticated and fashionable.
Rhapsody Trio in A minor for violin, cello
and piano Op. 80 (1926)
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 several 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 Rhapsody Trio could
easily be from the pen of Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky. I think
Bowen must have been using a stop-watch when composing this work
as many significant episodes are perfectly timed; often to the
0:00 Immediately the strings are evocative of
the opening to Mahler’s First Symphony. A timeless atmospheric
dawn breaking but more of a French than an English one.
3:00 A fine lyrical second subject with broad
expansive sounds. There is some romantic posturing in the development
4:00 Some rippling and brilliant arpeggios
in Liszt inspired piano writing.
5:20 Yearning and pleading string writing over
a most restless piano.
What we are hearing is from the Franck/Liszt/Saint-Saëns
tradition and a touch old-fashioned, with only its harmonies betraying
the work was written in the twentieth century. There is some of
the chromatic writing of Franck who was undoubtedly a major influence
and the work could have been written by one of his pupils.
10:00 In the latter stages of the Rhapsody
Trio Bowen includes some rather frantic passages, but they’re
not as refined as say the composer’s Horn quintet which
was composed in the next year. Yes, the composer is in a real
11:10 The work begins to gradually slow down
and a calmer atmosphere is evident.
11:30 >From this point the music is as sweet
13:00 In the tempo primo (quasi lento) conclusion
Bowen returns beautifully to the opening impressionism.
Trio in Three Movements Op. 118 (1945)
The instantly appealing and lyrical Trio in
Three Movements is a late Bowen composition and must have
seemed amazingly old fashioned at the time of its premiere. To
put the score into historical context Stravinsky’s Rite of
Spring, Berg’s Wozzeck and Bartók’s Sixth
String Quartet had been written some thirty-two, twenty-four
and six years earlier respectively. The trio 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.
0:00 Introduced by the solo piano, a self-important
and rather hurried opening to this allegro section is engaging
and most passionate.
1:30 The pace soon relaxes and for the second
subject Bowen uses an ardent Tchaikovsky-like outpouring on the
cello which is promptly joined by the violin over piano accompaniment.
The mood is rapidly altering from slow and emotional
to vigorous and agitated which is sustained throughout the movement.
Perhaps Bowen is mirroring his feelings and emotions following
the end of World War Two.
3:15 A handful of piano chords bring Delius to
mind but the music pulls itself into focus; almost Brahmsian in
its seriousness. Bowen gradually moves the flow onto more flowery
There is plenty of contrast in this first movement
marked grave - allegro risoluto which is almost Russian
in mood change. There is no academic correctness of form here,
rather lots of red-blooded substance.
0:00 Bowen again opens the movement with a dark
two bar piano introduction.
2:28 The violin reaches up high towards it clouds.
3:48 A beautiful dream-like theme is introduced
by the strings over the piano which is continued throughout the
This section holds its sentimentality in check
impressively offering a particularly good balance of musical conversation
with a Rachmaninov style piano writing, leaving the feel of sad-tinged
fondness; for some lady, surely!
5:00 Bowen has the ability to take the listener
by surprise as some subtle and tender moments follow unexpectedly.
The piano writing in this movement is reminiscent
of Rachmaninov and Franck. The mood overall is one of sadness
and reflection rather than optimism and elation, again this is
maybe Bowen’s recognition of the pain and suffering experienced
in the War.
This music is as masculine as the preceding movement
was feminine. It sounds for all the world like a portrayal of
university students let loose on a city centre.
0:00 A heroic and vigorous opening with a Russian-sounding
0:31 The lyrical and stately second subject is
introduced on the cello and continued to great effect on the piano.
3:13 You can almost visualise the students boasting
and strutting around trying to impress the girls and each other.
The whole movement, which is actually an extended
tarantella is like the cafe scene from Puccini’s La
Boheme and should be played with a smile. I wonder if that
is what Bowen intended? A most marvellous finale!
The Trio in Three Movements does not have
the lyricism of the earlier Horn quintet but makes up for
this with an abundance of passion. The piano writing could never
be described as great but the work is attractive and appealing
which grows on the listener with repeated hearings
Quintet in C major for horn and string quartet
Op. 85 (1927)
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 a subtle dominance over the strings throughout
the majority of the score. 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
0:00 Bowen’s four note horn motif that opens
the work and is subsequently taken up by the strings, dominates
the first movement of the quintet. The motif is identical to the
first movement theme that Vaughan Williams was to use in his Fifth
Symphony; which the great man composed later in 1937-43.
1:39 The bold unison theme presented here is
full of heroic gesture.
2:20 A more relaxed passage is introduced by
the horn and offers a contrast in mood. This is very romantic
music and the cello is prominent.
3:27 A disturbing statement from the viola brings
much agitation to the group but this mood is only temporary.
4:09 The theme that Vaughan Williams used in
his Fifth Symphony returns on the strings and immediately
has a calming effect.
Bowen adds colour to the score by using the horn
like a voice with the music not being exclusively written around
the horn part.
5:51 The staccato accompaniment is very
‘French’ and if I didn’t know I would think we were hearing a
pupil of Franck.
6:11 At this point we are given an infusion of
Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht which makes the listener sit-up.
There is a modern sound, at such times, to the harmonies. This
is most proficient writing for the strings with repeated use of
the horn motif.
The coda however feels slightly too rushed.
Gosh, Bowen is in a hurry!
0:00 At first distinctly ‘Delian’ in its harmonies
but after just twenty seconds the effect is clearly that of Richard
Strauss. In fact, the imprint of Strauss is felt consistently
throughout the this lovely andante expressive movement.
2:30 The horn call has a real Straussian feel,
as does this short section with all its pauses, hesitations and
3:21 A real yearning, almost a Grieg-like quality
from the first violin who is then joined by the horn.
4:52-5-14 Bowen uses some really modern sounding
harmonies here followed by a repeat of earlier passages and that
definite touch again of Delius [5:16] and Strauss [5:34].
This movement is clearly a passionate outpouring
0:00 The Finale in 2/4 time but opens
like a Scherzo with pizzicato strings against a
forceful horn theme. The horn and strings could be having a heated
1:50 Shimmering string accompaniment to the horn’s
4:05 A rather surprising fugato passage:
cello-viola-second violin-first violin. But the fugue is
not Germanic, it is light and soon [4:27] heads dreamily upwards
to the heavens.
5:02 With great passion in the writing the celestial
Straussian strings continue their ascension. Now the horn really
begins to sing to a wonderfully satisfying and memorable climax.
My eager anticipation to hear these Bowen chamber
works for the first time was matched by the unadulterated pleasure
and satisfaction from experiencing them. My pleasure has not diminished
with repeated hearings; only enhanced. The Endymion Ensemble gives
absolutely top class performances with the added bonus of a warm
high quality sound. As one has come to expect from Lewis Foreman
the sleeve notes are interesting and most informative.
This 2001 release is certainly on a par with
or perhaps even superior to any of those which comprise the prestigious
Naxos British chamber music series by the Maggini Quartet. The
Bowen Horn quintet is a masterwork that deserves to be
a major player in the chamber music repertory and if it was written
by a more better-known composer such as Vaughan Williams it certainly
would be. Highly recommended.