Hyperion’s ‘The Romantic
Piano Concerto’ series began in 1991 with the recording of the
Moszkowski and Paderewski Concertos (CDA66452), performed by
Piers Lane with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted
by Jerzy Maksymiuk. It might seem perverse, then, that such
melodic and eminently accessible works as these two piano concertos
by British composer, York Bowen should rank 46th in the series
and that the disc had to wait in line for 17 years. But playing
devil’s advocate and listening to these works, one cannot escape
the fact that they are so derivative. It is as though a musical
magpie was at work gathering Late-Romantic jewels and polishing
them and weaving them into a style of his own. If you can get
past all this, and personally I don’t have much difficulty in
doing that, then there is much to enjoy here.
I will refrain from
repeating Bowen’s biographical details, these have been spelt
out by my fellow MusicWeb reviewers in well-received notices
on Dutton Epoch.
Bowen’s Piano Concerto
No. 3 in G minor, an energetic one-movement work, begins with
tremolandos, flourishes and heroic gestures – all in the sweeping
heroic Late Romantic tradition. It was the critics that dubbed
it ‘Fantasia’. They were, it seems, irritated by its single-movement
structure. It is very melodic with odd bits of chinoiserie so
reminiscent of Cyril Scott, and there are elements of Tchaikovsky
and other popular Late-Romantics, together with an uncanny anticipation
of some of the more overt gestures of Hollywood’s Golden Age
composers. These melodies that would have graced any Max Steiner ‘weepie’ for
a screenplay full of hearts a-fluttering amongst twittering birds
and fragrant flowers. If this seems a flippant description of
the concerto, it in no way detracts from its joie de vivre
The Concerto No.
4 was conceived on a much bigger canvas. Sorabji, rather exaggeratedly,
claimed that it was the greatest work for piano and orchestra
ever written by an Englishman. I am none too sure about that
considering concertos by Bax, Britten, Ireland and Parry to mention
but a few. However this Bowen work certainly has its moments.
Take the mysterious atmospheric opening of the first movement
for example Emphatic staccato piano chords over a mysterious
slow marching ostinato for timps, bass drum and pianissimo
strings. This opening preludes a sophisticated large-scale Romantic
virtuoso work. The melodies - yearning and soaring - are luscious;
arpeggios and runs complex and decorative. Influences are varied.
I hear John Ireland and Debussy and Ravel (try the cadenza around
10:00), for instance. The central movement, after dejected downward
strings and horn-calls, opens with a quirky, cheeky piano theme interrupted
by bass piano stabbings. The romantic main theme, of regret and
remembrance, is sung first by cor anglais
then solo viola
before the piano takes it up. This material is developed as the
music meanders through a variety of moods, mostly veiled and
dreamy and a diversity of instruments and keys. Again there is
a substantial cadenza leading to an exquisite coda with sublime
music for solo violin and cello - the latter’s passage carries
the imprint of Vaughan Williams. Perfumed French Impressionism
is in evidence in the cadenza and is never far distant throughout
this movement. The finale begins most emphatically – noble heroic
stuff, trumpets blazing. Again Ravel comes to mind with proudly
assertive Spanish-style rhythms recalling the Concerto for the
Left Hand. Wistful, playful - Saint-Saëns’ concertos come to
mind - and squally material contrasts. Influences of Rachmaninov,
Bax and Ireland might be perceived, peppered as notes-writer
Glen Ballard suggests, with hints of Richard Strauss and Stravinsky.
Martyn Brabbins and
Danny Driver, who has made the music of York Bowen one of his
specialities, clearly relish the joyfully inflated romanticism
of these gorgeous works.
Derivative but delightful.
A wonderful romantic wallow.
Hyperion Romantic Piano Concertos page