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Composers at the Piano - Bowen and Reizenstein
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
CD 1

Ten Preludes from the Set Op. 102 (1938, publ.1950) (No.1 in C major: Moderato appassionato; No. 2 in C major: Andante tranquillo; No. 15 in G major: Allegretto grazioso; No. 16 in G minor: Moderato semplice; No. 10 in E minor: Moderato, a capriccio; No. 24 in B minor: Moderato serioso e tragico; No. 7 in E-flat major: Andante amabile; No. 8 in E-flat minor: Poco lento, serioso; No. 19 in A major: Andantino con moto; No. 20 in A minor: Allegro con fuoco) [21:29]
Partita Op. 156 (1960) [9:16]
Berceuse Op. 83 (1928) [3:43]
Moto Perpetuo (III from Suite Mignonne op. 39) (1915) [2:54]
Toccata in A minor Op. 155 (1957) [4:53]
York Bowen (piano)
Franz REIZENSTEIN (1911-1968)
CD 2

Piano Sonata in B Op. 19 (1944) [26:23]
Legend Op. 24 (1949) [5:34]
Scherzo Fantastique Op. 26 (1950) [9:01]
Impromptu Op. 14 (1939) [5:07]
Scherzo in A Op. 21 (1945) [5:28]
Franz Reizenstein (piano)
rec. mono, May 1960 (Bowen); October 1958 (Reizenstein). ADD
Originally from LPs RCS 17 Bowen; RCS19 Reizenstein
Mid Price Double
LYRITA REAM.2105 [42:13 + 51:37]

Experience Classicsonline

 

A quick question: who was the first person to record Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto? Schnabel maybe? Well, no, that’s far off. Backhaus? Getting closer – he was a pioneer on disc but not in this work. Well what about William Murdoch, another trailblazer in the studios? Getting warmer but he recorded the C minor concerto acoustically. The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is York Bowen who recorded it for Vocalion. Bowen was in fact quite active in that recording company’s studios though he recorded, I seem to recall, more Chopin than anyone else, and actually relatively little of his own works. Apart from a 1926 NGS traversal of the Brahms Horn Trio with Aubrey Brain and Spencer Dyke I’m not aware that he recorded commercially again until these very late Lyritas made the year before his death – though I think off-air performances may have survived.

And here are those fabled 1960 Lyritas revealing Bowen as a still agile and wholly impressive exponent of his music even at the age of seventy-six. The main prize is the cycle of Preludes of which he recorded ten of the twenty-four. They’re not presented in consecutive order and that’s reasonable enough since they form a fine unity as they are. The First is vital and tangy, the second has a rocking plangency whilst the fifteenth (which comes next) has French insouciance. A beautiful running water motif courses through 10, Rachmaninoff’s shade embraces the last, No.24, and despite the valiant effort of note writer Jonathan Frank in claiming only a ‘superficial resemblance’ the Russian looms behind No. 7 as well. No. 8 is a pensive study, Schumann animates No.19 and No.20, a stormy petrel, rightly ends this selection in a suitably galvanizing and virtuosic way. Despite the boxy acoustic Bowen’s pianism and personality shine through.

His Op.156 Partita was written in 1960 and was hot off the press when he recorded it. Couched in baroque forms but playfully subverting anticipations and expectations Bowen embarks instead on fluent Late Romantic excursions spiced up with some playful writing. The Sarabande is especially winning, with rich harmonies and a suggestive trill. The Minuet even goes so far as to feint with popular song; Bowen had a tremendous gift for melody. The Moto Perpetuo is the third movement of his 1915 Suite Mignonne Op.39. Debussy was an influence but there’s a sturdy English impress cross-pollinated with Rachmaninoff. The Toccata Op.155 meets the genre head on in this exciting and virtuosic performance. It ends a session that was in the nick of time, preserving the composer-executant’s performances for posterity. It’s the same kind of dedication that, say, Michael G. Thomas showed when privately recording Frank Merrick and all the more to be saluted now in disc format.

Because of the original LP sides Lyrita has devoted a CD each to Bowen and to the composer-executant who shares this disc, Franz Reizenstein, who was recorded in 1958. Reizenstein’s music is less overtly expressive and forthcoming than Bowen’s, being couched in a more Hindemith-inspired locale. The main focus here is the 1944 Sonata. The first movement’s relative length – eleven or so minutes – is conveyed with superior architectural control, the span measured with acute perception, the moods conveyed perfectly and the harmonic interest seldom flagging. The aloof profile of the slow movement is a slow-burner but by no means obviously ingratiating, whilst the confident even gruff finale embodies a sturdy figure which tends to obscure the occasionally academic workout nature of the fugal writing. A rather imposing work – not granitic, but not effusive either – the product of a synthesising mind, brilliantly performed by its composer.

The smaller works will probably be as little known. The Legend for instance is a refined study which slowly ascends to quite an assertive pitch. And there’s wit and grotesquerie in the Scherzo Fantastique with its slower more clement central panel.

Again, all credit to Lyrita for having had the guts and acumen to record both these then unfashionable composers at the piano and to ensure that their own legacies are lasting. At a time when vaults are being locked and copyright extension mooted we should be more than thankful for this kind of thing.

Jonathan Woolf

John France has also listened to these discs

Both York Bowen and Franz Reizenstein belong to a very small group of composers, who, in my musical experience never fail to please. There are plenty of works by RVW, Elgar and Britten. that leave me cold or that I positively dislike. Yet, with the two present composers I have yet to hear any work that has not impressed me and, more often than not, moved me. There are a few others: Cyril Scott and Frank Bridge being the two main contenders. It seems that somehow these four composers are completely on my wavelength – or is it vice versa?

I discovered Bowen and Reizenstein by way of the original vinyl releases of these recordings back in the late seventies. Banks Music Shop in York were still able to order these discs, in spite of the fact that they must have been twenty odd years old. And they are still in my ‘small but select’ residual LP collection. Yet now that they have been released on CD there is little need for me to endure the somewhat rocky sound that my records seem to have acquired over the past thirty-five years!

York Bowen’s Ten Preludes are actually a selection from the superb set of Twenty Four Preludes in all the major and minor keys. Bowen has obviously chosen what he regards as the most appropriate numbers to make up a recital set. And with this he is entirely successful. Although I am an enthusiast of the entire set, it is a long haul to listen to all of them at a sitting, no matter how good they are. This present selection acts as a fine introduction and will, it is to be hoped, encourage listeners who do not know this work to find and listen to the complete edition. My personal favourite of the set is No. 7 in Eb major. Surely this is one piece that justifies Bowen’s nickname as the ‘English Rachmaninov’? Yet it is a delicious piece that is full of colour and downright ‘heart on sleeve’ romance. When one considers how late these pieces were written, if not published, it is perhaps not surprising that some critics regard them as derivative and old-fashioned.

The Partita is a case in point – being written in 1960. Once again it would be easy to see this work as being somewhat ‘retro’ – certainly compared to some of the ‘long haired’ music that was appearing on the scene at that time. However, from the first note to the last, this is a happy and fortuitous composition. The title could suggest that this is inspired by baroque music, yet there is nothing of pastiche about this piece. In fact, the mood is quite definitely romantic in almost every detail. That said, there are some moments in this work, for example the ‘minuet’ and the ‘gigue,’ that have a suggestion of the ‘salon’ about them. Yet the artistry and the technique is well beyond that required by the ephemera of that particular genre. The attractive Berceuse, which was composed in 1928, nods to Chopin, yet is not a parody as such. However the shifting harmonies - Billy Mayerl sprang to mind! - situate this work in the twentieth century rather than the nineteenth. It is a lovely piece.

The Moto Perpetuo from the Suite Mignonne is a show stopper. Rob Barnett rightly states that it "sweepingly doffs its cap to Sergei". This is a complex piece of music that, as the sleeve-notes state, "requires the lightest and most delicate playing…" This piece was written during the First World War in 1915 - it seems a million miles away from Ypres and the Western Front. The last piece, a Toccata, was composed some 42 years after the Moto perpetuo – yet it is similar in that it is virtuosic and requires a huge piano technique. It would make a fine encore to a recital of Bowen’s or anyone else’s piano music for that matter.

Franz Reizenstein is an honorary English composer – and perhaps one of that large band of unjustly neglected masters. I did a little straw poll amongst a few of my musical friends. None of them hard heard his name – never mind any of his music. Yet I am prepared to stick my head above the parapet and state that the Piano Sonata in B is one of the finest essays of this form in the literature. The work was composed in 1944 and was dedicated to William Walton. It is a considerable piece that lasts for nearly half an hour and explores a wide range of emotion and ‘imagination.’ Contemporary reviewers were a little mixed in their reviews. On the one hand there was a recognition of inspiration and ‘more-than-competence’ in the technical layout of the music. Yet there was a direct criticism of the composer’s use of "unassimilated styles" throughout this three movement work. It is easy to find references or perhaps even nods to a range of composers – Hindemith for one and perhaps Alan Rawsthorne. Interestingly Reizenstein studied with Vaughan Williams but there appears to be virtually no influence from that direction.

Listening to this work some sixty-odd years after its publication lends a fine opportunity to put aside any suggestion of cribbing, of lack of originality or confusion of styles. Surely this work can only be seen as the masterpiece that it surely is – from the technical as well as the aesthetic point of view. Yet I doubt that it will ever become popular in the recitals: the reason why, is that it more of a cerebral work than one of sheer virtuosic display. There is nothing in this work that should deter the listener: it is written in a language that is both appealing and satisfying.

The Legend is a good introduction to Reizenstein’s music. It is a relatively straightforward ‘cantabile melody’ that is subjected to a number of interesting metamorphoses. There is a darker and more intense middle section, before the main tune is reprised and the original mood is restored. The Scherzo Fantastique is quite a long piece and makes considerable demands on the soloist. It would be easy to suggest that Chopin was the model here – both for the construction of the work and the pianistic figuration. Yet this piece was written in 1950 and has a number of features that were more prevalent in that time than in Chopin’s. Without the score I cannot quite decide if there is a ‘series’ present in this piece – but certainly the melodic structure sounds as if there is an emphasis on atonality rather than a defined key.

The last two works in this conspectus of Reizenstein’s music show various aspects of the composer’s craft. The programme notes state that the Impromptu is "without technical difficulties" – yet the listener must surely be impressed by the variety of moods and pianism that are the hallmark of this lovely piece. Just now and again I was reminded of John Ireland in this number – yet I am sure there is no conscious reference. The last work is the Scherzo in A. This is so full of life, excitement and exhilaration – exactly as a scherzo should be. It is well written and has an abundance of invention: musical ideas seem to tumble over each other as the work progresses. This Scherzo would make an fine recital piece, if only pianists would be brave enough to explore this repertoire in the concert hall.

Certainly with the Franz Reizenstein disc this set ties up a number of loose ends. Currently there is another version of the Piano Sonata available. However the other pieces here appear to be the only available recordings. York Bowen’s piano music is slightly better represented on CD with at least two complete recordings of the Preludes (Stephen Hough and Joop Celis) on disc. The only piece not available elsewhere is the Partita. However, availability is not really the point of this great re-release from Lyrita. It is surely sufficient to have recordings of the two composers playing their own music - and playing it with such technical skill, aplomb and panache!

see also review by Rob Barnett

 

 

 

 


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