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



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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 round minute.

Single Movement

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 section.

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 hurry here!

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 as honey.

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.

First Movement

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 musings.

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.

Second Movement

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 movement.

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.

Third Movement

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 leading theme.

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

First movement:

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!

Second Movement:

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 harmonics etc.

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 of love.

Third Movement:

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 discussion.

1:50 Shimmering string accompaniment to the horn’s pleadings.

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.

Michael Cookson

 

 



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