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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Piano Works - Volume 3
Ballade No.2 Op.87 (1931) [10:16]
Three Songs without Words Op.94 (1935) [11:13]
From Three Preludes Op.81 (late 1920s) [5:47]
Short Sonata Op.35 No.1 (1922) [14:19]
Three Miniatures Op.44 (1916) [6:55]
Three Serious Dances Op.51 (1919) [7:23]
Toccata Op.155 (1957) [4:22]
Three Pieces Op. 20 (1905) [18:13]
Joop Celis (piano)
rec. Willem Hijstek Zaal, Maastricht Conservatory, The Netherlands, 21-24 March 2008
CHANDOS CHAN10506 [79:20]
Experience Classicsonline

I guess the one thing that put York Bowen’s career into perspective for me was meeting a lady on a train. I do not think that it would be giving too much away to say that she was probably a few years older that me – in her late fifties. Conversation about the weather turned to London, the Wigmore Hall and the piano. She told me that the examiner at one of her early ‘grades’ was - York Bowen. My travelling companion probably took her Grade 5 around 1959. It is interesting to note that the earliest piece on this CD, the Three Preludes was composed in 1905 and the latest, the Toccata in 1957. Bowen, then, spanned a considerable part of the Twentieth Century. The ‘sleeve-notes’ to this CD explain this well. They point out that the composer lived from a time when a man could have been expected not to have seen a motor car to a time when John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced his intention to land men on the Moon. And there were two World Wars in between.
 
It is only relatively recently that enthusiasts of British music have been able to get their heads around Bowen’s music. For many years, during the ’sixties, ’seventies and ’eighties the only record that was generally available was the composer’s recital on Lyrita: it was a good and tantalising introduction. I immediately fell in love with the Preludes – most especially the gorgeous ‘seventh’.
 
It is not the place to develop a chronological discography of York Bowen, but the highlights have to include Celis’s recording of all 24 Preludes, the three editions of the Viola Concerto, a considerable variety of chamber music and orchestral works on Dutton Epoch, the fine ‘Romanic Piano Concertos’ volume on Hyperion (see review) and the Second Symphony in the British Symphonic Collection on the ClassicO label (see review).
 
Perhaps the biggest project is the potentially complete (?) solo piano music by Joop Celis on Chandos. We have already reached volume three: there is plenty more music that demands attention – both published and in holograph.
 
There is always a danger when issuing the ‘complete’ or ‘collected’ works of any composer - or author, poet or essayist - that there is inevitably a deal of second and even third rate works included for the train-spotters amongst us. However, padding is not a word I would apply to this present recording. Each and every work here is a splendid example of Bowen’s craft as well as being a valid contribution to English music. Many of the works given here are premiere recordings – never having appeared on 78s, vinyl or any other medium. They are indeed welcome.
 
The recital opens with a fine performance of one of the longest of the composer’s piano works that is not a Sonata: the Ballade No.2 in A minor. This is a fine work, one which allows the listener to ‘get into’ Bowen’s style. The liner-notes suggest that this piece is “somewhat epigrammatic in its melodic writing”. However the nature of a Ballade is that it takes a simple story and embellishes it with more or less detail. It is exactly this process which the composer uses to such great effect here. This is a hugely virtuosic piece that is internally consistent. It places great demands on the soloist, both from a technical and from an interpretive perspective.  It was published by Oxford University Press in 1931 and was presumably written around that time.
 
I really enjoyed the delicious Three Songs without Words which belie their ‘late’ date of 1935. There is nothing of the ‘second Viennese school’ about these romantically overblown works! I could suggest a number of sources of his inspiration, but that would be largely irrelevant. Let’s just say that if you like Fauré you will love these dreamy pieces. There is a certain sadness here which resolves into a definite feeling of ‘heartsease’. I believe that these three ‘songs’ – Song of the Stream, Solitude and The Warning – ought to be listened to as a group.
 
I guess that many people will know that York Bowen wrote his Twenty-Four Preludes ‘in all the major and minor keys’ in 1950. I agree with those commentators who regard this work as the composer’s masterpiece – at least within the ambit of the solo piano literature. However there are a small number of other Preludes which Bowen composed at various times in his career.  The Three Preludes date from the 1920s and in some ways can be seen as a precursor to his larger opus. Unfortunately, due to ‘the limitations of playing time’ only the second and third of these delightful pieces have been recorded. Now, I have no problems with the length of this CD – just 40 seconds shy of eighty minutes. But it does trouble me that this first Prelude may have been lost for good. I doubt if there will many subsequent recordings of this music and I imagine that if Chandos do release a Volume 4 it would be somewhat of an ‘orphan’ piece if presented there.  But the fact remains, the two Preludes recorded here are worthy of Bowen’s art, especially the ‘heart-on-the-sleeve’ romance of the ‘allegretto grazioso’.
 
I was in Chappell’s music shop in Wardour Street the other night, and I noticed that, along with a number of other piano works, the Short Sonata (1922) has been republished. This is an exciting and long overdue development.  However, if any listener is of the impression that this ‘diminutive’ work is in some way akin to a ‘sonatina’ suitable for neophytes, they are mistaken. The programme notes suggest that this piece is fourteen minutes long so it is ‘not really that short’.  It is correct to suggest that this work ought to be ‘numbered’ as one of the composer’s list of piano Sonatas – which would then number seven. Listen for the ‘haunting tune’ at the start of the middle movement and note the finale, a ‘presto scherzando’ which is a sheer delight.
 
The Three Miniatures are another example of music where the title belies the depth and the technical difficulty. These were ‘wartime’ pieces which were completed in 1916: they seem a million miles away from the horrors of that time. However Bowen composed this music shortly after he had been invalided out of the Scots Guards - his wartime service was thankfully complete. Robert Matthew-Walker suggests that these pieces are in fact ‘studies in rhythm’ rather than just written for the salon. The opening Prelude is thoughtful and makes use of subtle variations and part-writing. Look out especially for the sultry Spanish flavour of the second piece – an Intermezzo.  The final ‘allegro scherzando’ is quite lovely – but is certainly not easy. There is a magic about these ‘miniatures’ that seems to define much of Bowen’s pianistic style.
 
One of the first pieces of Bowen’s music I heard was played to me by an elderly gentleman – who was both a pianist and an organist. His great claim to fame was that he once played a piano duet with Maurice Ravel. It was the Three Serious Dances which had been published in 1918. I seem to recall I had discovered the sheet music in a second-hand book-shop, found that it was well beyond me and asked him to play it.  I am sad to tell that I can recall little of his performance, save to say that it made me want to hear more of Bowen’s music.
 
The Three Serious Dances are quite a contrast. It is, however, unfair to suggest that these are in some way typically sad or even lugubrious.  I guess that the title derives from the generally introspective feel to this music. I agree with Robert Matthew-Walker that there is a constant forward momentum in these three dances. There is no doubt that they are to a certain extent ‘retro’ – even for 1918. However, these are beautiful and exquisite pieces. I was most struck by the ‘languid’ second Dance, which like the others is in no way sentimental or clichéd. The last Dance in F# major, a forceful ‘allegro molto pomposo’, is technically demanding, if not quite pushing the bounds of Listzian virtuosity.
 
The late Toccata from 1957 was reconstructed from the autograph score by Stephen Hough. Lasting for some five minutes this work is exactly what one would imagine a toccata to be. Full of highly technical writing, this Toccata is well laid out for pianists allowing them at least half a chance of playing this demanding work. The composer gave the first performance at the Wigmore Hall in June 1960 – the year before his death. At the time he would have been 76 years old. It is surely a tribute to his enduring keyboard technique that this work was a huge success at that recital.
 
The CD closes with the earliest item on this CD – the Three Pieces Op.20 which date from 1905. In spite of their obvious Francophile influences – Debussy, Ravel and Saint-Saëns spring to mind - these are convincing works. The twenty-one year old composer was probably under a heap of influences at this time: the programme notes mention Grovlez and Fauré as being influential. I must be honest and state that the Arabesque, the Reverie d‘Amour and the Bells are derivative. It is fair, however, to insist that Bowen handles his material with skill, honesty and conviction. These are lovely pieces that surely deserve to be revived.
 
This is a great CD. For all those enthusiasts who enjoy York Bowen in particular and late-romantic pianism in general this is an important disc. The music is beautifully played by Joop Celis, who has manifestly become Bowen’s champion. The recording is superb and has a clarity that certainly adds considerably to an appreciation of this underrated music. The programme notes by Robert Matthew-Walker add to the listener’s enjoyment.
 
One last thought, York Bowen is a composer who seriously impresses me. However it is more than this. Along with Cyril Scott, Samuel Barber and Maurice Ravel I have never yet heard a piece of his music that I have not thoroughly enjoyed or been more or less moved by. That is surely a rare thing. And it is certainly not true of some of the ‘greats’ – at least for me.
 
John France
 

 


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