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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in G minor (Fantasia) (1907) [17:47]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in A minor (1929) [42:53]
Danny Driver (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 30-31 August 2007
HYPERION CDA67659 [60:49]
Experience Classicsonline

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 of Bowen’s Piano Concertos 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 and sheer delight.
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 lower 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.
Ian Lace

Hyperion Romantic Piano Concertos page



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