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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 33 (1913) [37.42]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op 11 (1903) [26.07]
Lorraine McAslan (violin)
Michael Dussek (piano)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. 5-6 December 2005, The Colosseum, Town Hall, Watford, England. DDD
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7169 [64.09]

 

 

How often have we heard the cry ‘unjustly neglected’ when a long forgotten work by a late-Romantic composer from the British Isles is revived after years of abandonment. Far too often I have been left disappointed when all the furore has died away. This is not the case here on this Dutton Epoch release as with the restoration of two high quality concertos from the pen of York Bowen the repertoire has become richer. I listened to the Bowen Violin Concerto with members of a Recorded Music Society and the general reaction was disbelief at the deplorable neglect accorded to such a high quality score. Dutton inform me that they are the first ever company to record and commercially issue both Bowen’s Violin Concerto, Op 33 and the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op 11. I read somewhere that this release is the first volume of a series of Bowen Concertos. If accurate it is great to know that more scores are planned for recording.

I frequently hear the word ‘rehabilitated’ applied to the fortunes of London-born composer York Bowen with regard to the recent trend towards recording his works; works that are often out of print and are usually receiving their first commercial recording. 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 curiosities to be wheeled out occasionally for historical interest. I believe many of Bowen’s works, such as the Horn Quintet, Op. 85, the Violin Concerto, Op 33 and the Cello Sonata, Op.64 to be outstanding and I am hopeful that they will become established as a major part of the repertoire.

Once fêted by the music establishment, Bowen’s tonal and conservative music with an elegant lyricism quickly became unfashionable after the Great War for much the same reason as that of his older contemporaries Elgar and Bantock. Music had rapidly changed and the English late-Romantics of that generation become marginalised having to compete with the growing enthusiasm for progressive composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg et al. Bowen quickly became a victim of the new fashion as he was still composing music in the manner of a bygone generation and consequently his music swiftly moved into virtual obscurity. After eighty to a hundred years or so 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. My particular interest in Bowen’s music was sparked in 1996 by a revelatory, award winning recording of his piano works by Stephen Hough on Hyperion CDA66838.

In terms of variety of repertoire this may prove to be the golden age for recorded music. Much of Bowen’s substantial output has yet to be recorded. It is satisfying to have an increasing number of his works available on disc. Recordings such as these Bowen concertos would have been unthinkable even less than ten years ago. As part of their Epoch series Dutton Vocalion are using their niche marketing skills to record the unfamiliar music of talented British composers many of whom have fallen out of favour. For me Dutton have taken over the mantle that the Lyrita label wore in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bowen has been especially well served by Dutton in recent years with several recordings currently available. On CDLX 7115 the Endymion Ensemble perform the String Quartet No.2, Op.73, Quintet in C minor for Horn and String Quartet, Op.85, Rhapsody Trio (1926) and the Trio in Three Movements, Op.118. On CDLX 7120 members of the Endymion Ensemble perform the Cello Sonata, Op.64, Suite for Violin and Piano, Op.28 and the Violin Sonata, Op.112. On CDLX 7126 James Boyd and Bengt Forsberg perform the Viola Sonata No.1, Viola Sonata No.2 and the Phantasy for Viola and Piano, Op.54. Endymion Ensemble members return on CDLX 7129 to perform the Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op.120, Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Op.85, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op.109 and Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op.101. Other significant Bowen releases include a British Music Society recording of the String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 and the Phantasy Quintet from the Archaeus Quartet on BMS426CD and from Hyperion the Viola Concerto in C minor, Op 25 from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins with violist Lawrence Power on CDA67546 c/w Cecil Forsyth Viola Concerto. In addition the Bowen Cello Sonata, Op.64 is also available on a valuable British Music Society recording on BMS423CD c/w John Foulds Cello Sonata and Ernest Walker Cello Sonata.

For those not familiar with Bowen’s music and curious to know what is in store one can expect an eclectic range of influences from composers such as Franck, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Dvořák, Delius and Richard Strauss. Bowen’s music is unashamedly late-Romantic in personality and ambience, brooding and emotional with a frequently haunting and sensual beauty, qualities which undoubtedly explain why Bowen is sometimes referred to as the ‘English Rachmaninov’.

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 33 (1913)

Bowen completed his only Violin Concerto in 1913 but it was not played until a Promenade Concert in 1920 where it was performed by the soloist Marjorie Hayward with the composer conducting. The three movement concerto is in the same key as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with which it shares a similar weight, clear-cut design and brilliance of execution.

It is likely that Bowen gained some inspiration for his E minor Concerto from Elgar’s Violin Concerto which was written only three years earlier. Furthermore, Bowen’s predominant use of the instrument’s higher register, the soaring melodies and the warm and summery mood provides me with several connections to the sound world of Walton’s Violin Sonata (1947-50), Viola Concerto (1928-9, rev. 1961) and the Violin Concerto (1938-9); later scores that would undoubtedly be considered as being far more sophisticated and fashionable. Although highly impressed I am not suggesting that Bowen’s Violin Concerto in the same class as those by Elgar and Walton who were so adept at providing emotional depth and those ‘killer’ tunes that Bowen couldn’t match.

Scottish violinist Lorraine McAslan seems the perfect choice as soloist. Trained at the Juilliard School in New York McAslan first came to my attention in 1985 with her fine recording of the Elgar and Walton sonataswith John Blakely on a ASV digital vinyl record DCA 548. The recordings were reissued on ASV Quicksilva CDQS6191 and are now available on the Sanctuary Classics ‘Resonance Series’ CDRSN3060. The Glasgow-born violinist has championed many works from neglected British composers and her teaching career at the Royal Academy of Music links in perfectly with Bowen’s strong associations with the prestigious London music school.        

The opening movement of the Violin Concerto marked allegro maestoso - allegro ma non troppo, at fourteen minutes, is the longest of the three. The orchestral accompaniment in the opening pages reminded me of the Delius composed only a few years later in 1916. The main feature of this movement is the brilliant passagework and a warm singing violin line that seems to soar upwards to the sky. The orchestra and conductor are on fine form and provide such an effective orchestral climax between points 7.09 to 7.17 (track 1) that it sent a shiver down my spine. The central movement is an andante con moto devised in a simple ternary structure. With McAslan’s affectionate interpretation I felt the score was evocative of walking through a peaceful wooded glade with the rays of sunlight glinting through the trees. The substantial final movement is an allegro assai abounding in contrasting moods. The movement offers the soloist plenty of opportunity to display her virtuosity. At almost the halfway point the pace suddenly quickens between points 6.01 to 6.54 (track 3) before returning at point 7.08 to a more relaxed and lyrical mood that winds its way to the conclusion. The admirable McAslan brings a brooding quality to the movement and her performance of the complete score radiates pleasure. A genuine champion of English music Vernon Handley conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra in a warm and sympathetic performance.                                

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op. 11 (1903)

Bowen was invited to play his first Piano Concerto at a Promenade Concert under Henry Wood when only 19 years old. The E flat Concerto is an uninhibited, showy work that offers the soloist considerable opportunity for display. Lewis Foreman in the booklet notes observes that, “the young composer is letting us know how clever he is”. Designed in three movements the E flat Concerto doesn’t exactly plumb great emotional depths, however, the music is extrovert, rich in invention and has substantial appeal. Michael Dussek is a Professor and Fellow at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and maintains the Institute’s connection to Bowen.

The opening movement is marked moderato - andante con molto - appassionato and is full of eclectic influences with a wealth of engaging ideas. Several friends have remarked that the extended introduction for the piano at points 0.05 to 1.13 (track 4) could easily have come from the pen of Rachmaninov. Amid the abundance of themes, motifs and arpeggio figures there is a feminine beauty to this limpid movement that exudes warmth and joy. The short scherzo - allegro molto central movement follows a model similar to those used by Saint-Saëns and Litolff. Bowen’s scherzo lacks the individual character of the corresponding movement in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2. At points 2.56 to 4.09 (track 5) events improve with an extended episode of Mendelssohnian mischievousness matched with appropriately fresh and lively playing from Dussek. At thirteen minutes the closing movement marked allegro molto is longer than the first and second movements combined. This swift and spirited finale bustles with a succession of brief ideas, the piano taking prominence throughout. At points 8.01 to 11.09 (track 6) the brilliant cadenza takes centre-stage. The infectious energy and exuberance of the closing movement is impressive. The brilliant passagework in the manner of Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky takes the movement to a triumphant conclusion. This is sparkling music rather than anything of great substance, made memorable in the hands of the excellent soloist who performs with personality, charm and considerable conviction.          

I was extremely pleased with the well balanced sound quality from the Dutton engineers and the booklet notes from Lewis Foreman are as first class as I have come to expect. This well presented Dutton Epoch release is a revealing survey of the charming and colourful sound world of York Bowen.

Music of eloquent beauty that will lift the spirits. A valuable release that will be one of my ‘Records of the Year’.

Michael Cookson

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