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York BOWEN (1884–1961)
Music for Viola
CD 1 [61:39]
Viola Sonata No 1 in C minor, Op. 18 (1905) [25:44]
Romance in D flat major, (1900, arr. 1904) [6:28]B
Fantasia for 4 Violas (Viola Quartet) in E minor, Op. 41, No. 1 (1907) [9:42]A
Beethoven: Adagio sostenuto from Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No 2 ‘Moonlight’ with viola obbligato by York Bowen, completed and edited by Lawrence Power [5:40]B
Phantasy in F major, Op. 54 (1918) [13:32]
CD 2 [60:55]
Viola Sonata No 2 in F major, Op. 22 (1906) [25:41]
Romance in A major, (1908) [5:50]B
Allegro de concert in D minor, (1906) [7:49]B
Melody for the G string in G flat major, Op. 47 (1917) [3:53]
Melody for the C string in F major, Op. 51, No 2 (1918) [3:48]
Rhapsody in G minor, (1955) [13:15]
Lawrence Power (viola)
Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
A Lawrence Power; Philip Dukes; James Boyd; Scott Dickinson (violas)
rec. 29-31 October, 5-7 November 2007, Potton Hall, Westleton, Saxmundham, Suffolk, England. DDD 
B First recordings
[61:39 + 60:55]


Experience Classicsonline

The English music revival continues with this welcome release of viola music by York Bowen from the Hyperion label that should delight the ever growing ranks of lovers of neglected English chamber music. I have also reviewed three other recent releases of recommendable viola music from English-born composers that have proved significant discoveries from: Sir Arnold Bax on Naxos 8.557784 (see review), Rebecca Clarke on Naxos 8.557934 (see review) and Benjamin Dale on Dutton Epoch CDLX7204 (see review).

A large number of these scores were composed specifically for the distinguished and influential British violist Lionel Tertis. A further connection that Tertis shares with Bax, Clarke, Dale and Bowen is that all five had studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music. I note that Hyperion claim that four of the scores on this disc are first recordings.

The word ‘rehabilitated’ is one often applied to the fortunes of London-born composer York Bowen. These works are frequently out of print and are often receiving their first commercial recording. Rather than being ‘rehabilitated’ I would rather view recordings of Bowen’s music as being ‘restored’ to the repertoire. His compositions, spanning two World Wars, are more than mere curiosities to be wheeled out occasionally for historical interest. Some of Bowen’s music will over time become established as major scores in 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. Much the same fate applied to the music of his older contemporaries: Stanford, Parry, Elgar and Bantock. Musical taste had rapidly changed. The English late-Romantics of that generation became marginalised having to compete with the growing enthusiasm for progressive European music from composers such as: Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Berg. Bowen’s music quickly became a casualty of the new fashion; he was still writing in the manner of a bygone generation. 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 qualities rather than for the dynamic of the era in which it was written. My interest in Bowen’s music was sparked in 1996 by a revelatory, award-winning recording of his piano works as performed by Stephen Hough on the Hyperion label.

Bowen’s eclectically blended music is unashamedly late-romantic in personality and ambience. It is brooding and emotional with a frequently haunting and sensual beauty, qualities which explain why Bowen is sometimes referred to as the ‘English Rachmaninov’.

On the first disc the opening work is the Viola Sonata No 1 in C minor. Bowen completed it in 1905. Cast in three movements it was first performed by Tertis and Bowen at London’s Aeolian Hall in 1905. Initially jaunty and agreeable the opening Allegro moderato develops at its core more seriousness and a dramatic quality. The yearning quality of the viola part at 6:12-6:49 and at 8:32-10:19 is a highlight of the score. In the central Poco lento e cantabile one is in danger of being overwhelmed by waves of Bowen’s passionate outpourings. Intensely reflective and melancholy the Finale contains a central section of a lighter buoyant character. The build-up to the conclusion has a degree of severity ending with swift-footed revelry.

Evocative of an intense and passionate love affair the Romance was originally composed in 1900 for violin and piano being arranged by Bowen for the viola and piano in 1904.

Tertis was enthusiastic in promoting music for ensembles of violas and he commissioned Bowen to write the Fantasia for 4 violas (Viola Quartet), Op. 41/1. The single movement Viola Quartet was composed in 1907 and premiered by Tertis and his pupils the next year. I note that Tertis in 1911 also requested Benjamin Dale to compose him a work for viola ensemble and the result was the sumptuous single movement Introduction & Andante for Six Violas (Viola Sextet), Op.5. In the Viola Quartet Bowen takes the listener on an absorbing and eventful journey that incorporates a tender and exhausting ending. In spite of being hindered by its rather impractical instrumentation this is a highly successful score that deserves to hold more than mere novelty status.

Beethoven wrote his three movement Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No 2 ‘Moonlight’ in 1801. Most likely a product of his student or pre-war days Bowen made an arrangement of the opening Adagio sostenuto movement with a viola obbligato. Bowen’s manuscript score has not survived intact leaving only fifty-seven bars. For this recording the last twenty or so bars have been completed and edited by violist Lawrence Power. Here Bowen works with a true masterpiece of the solo piano genre. His adroitly prepared viola obbligato imparts a fascinating and richly luxurious aspect to the score. 

Completed six months before the Armistice at the end of the Great War in 1918 the substantial Phantasy in F major, Op. 54 was premiered later that momentous year by Tertis at London’s Wigmore Hall. The winner of the 1918 Cobbett prize, the Phantasy is a bittersweet score. This is deeply introspective music of a languid character that integrates spirited episodes and concludes with a powerfully driving conclusion of high drama.

The second disc commences with the three movement Viola Sonata No 2 in F major that Bowen composed in 1906. That year, not long after the first performance of the Viola Sonata No 1, Bowen and Tertis gave the premiere of the score at the Aeolian Hall in London. Initially light and pleasing with an almost salon-like quality the opening movement marked Allegro assai gradually develops a more serious and weighty tone. The slow central movement is heavy and fatiguing containing a pensive temperament. One cannot fail to be impressed with the splendidly buoyant and high spirited Finale.

The Romance from 1908 written originally for cello and piano was later arranged by Bowen for viola and piano. Designed in a single movement this attractive and expressively heartfelt score inhabits a more melodic sound-world than his earlier Romance.

Composed by Bowen in 1906 the single movement Allegro de concert was again thought to be influenced by Tertis but there is no information concerning any performances. The Allegro de concert displays bold and biting energy but with a contemplative central core.

From the last two years of the Great War the Melody, Op. 47 and his Melody, Op. 51, No.2 have clear associations with Tertis. The Melody in G flat major was premiered by Tertis and Bowen in 1917 at a wartime charity concert. The event was to provide funds for books to be sent to the British civilian prison camp at the commandeered Ruhleben racecourse near Berlin where his friend Benjamin Dale was interned. Not surprisingly Bowen conveys a grey and gloomy atmosphere redolent of the horrors of warfare. The highly melodic Melody for the C string in F major was completed in 1918. Here Bowen’s assured writing enabled Tertis to display the rich and plaintive qualities of the viola’s lowest string.

Bowen was in his early seventies when he composed in 1955 the substantial Rhapsody in G minor written for its dedicatee the violist Maurice Loban. Later that year Bowen and Loban went on to broadcast the score. In the aggressively powerful opening the frenetic activity is highly impressive and the central section has the feel of a relaxing ballad. The rustic feel of the final episode is lively and eventful, and the cyclical nature of the score is apparent as the piece ends with similar material to the opening idea.

Much of Bowen’s substantial output is now being recorded and a considerable cluster of recordings have become available over the last decade or so. Bowen has been especially well served recently by the Dutton Epoch and Hyperion labels with several recordings currently available in the catalogue:

On Dutton Epoch CDLX 7115 the Endymion Ensemble perform the Quintet in C minor for Horn and String Quartet, Op.85, Rhapsody Trio (1926) and the Trio in Three Movements, Op.118 (see review). Members of the Endymion Ensemble perform the Cello Sonata, Op.64, Suite for Violin & Piano, Op.28 and the Violin Sonata, Op.112 on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7120 (see review). James Boyd and Bengt Forsberg perform the Viola Sonata No.1, Viola Sonata No.2 and the Phantasy for Viola & Piano, Op.54 on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7126. Endymion Ensemble members return on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7129 to perform the Sonata for Flute & Piano, Op.120, Sonata for Oboe & Piano, Op.85, Sonata for Clarinet & Piano, Op.109 and Sonata for Horn & Piano, Op.101 (see review). From 2005 Dutton Epoch have released a fine recording of the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 33 and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op. 11 performed by Lorraine McAslan and Michael Dussek with the BBC Concert Orchestra under Vernon Handley on CDLX 7169 (see review). The most recent offering from Dutton Epoch is the Piano Concerto No.2 (Concertstück) in D minor, Op.17; Piano Concerto No.3 (Fantasia) in G minor, Op.23 and the Tone Poem: Symphonic Fantasia, Op.16 performed by Michael Dussek (piano) and the BBC Concert Orchestra under Vernon Handley on CDLX 7187 (see review).

The Hyperion label in 1996 released a landmark disc of Bowen’s Piano Works by Stephen Hough that won several prestigious awards on CDA66838 (see review). In addition there is a impressive recording of the Viola Concerto in C minor, Op. 25 from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins with violist Lawrence Power on Hyperion CDA67546 (c/w Cecil Forsyth Viola Concerto) (see review). To be issued later in 2008 is a recording of Bowen’s 3rd and 4th Piano Concertos from pianist Danny Driver with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins on Hyperion CDA67659. It seems that Driver is recording a complete survey of Bowen's Piano Sonatas for Hyperion.

Other significant Bowen releases include an attractive British Music Society recording of the String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 and the Phantasy Quintet from the Archaeus Quartet on BMS426CD (see review). In addition the 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’s Cello Sonata (see review).

One of the leading violists on the world stage today, Lawrence Power goes from strength to strength with this collection. Power is in constant demand as a soloist in the concert hall and also as a chamber music performer with his membership of the Leopold String Trio and the Nash Ensemble. Technically assured, Power plays with a poised control yet is not afraid to display a deeply romantic vein. The large rich timbre of his viola is aptly communicated by this close and detailed recording made at Potton Hall. The booklet essay from Lewis Foreman is exemplary and contributes to the claims of this outstanding double from Hyperion. Undoubtedly this valuable set will be one of my selections as a Record of the Year for 2008.

Michael Cookson



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