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
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
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
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
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
and the Second Symphony in
the British Symphonic Collection on the ClassicO label (see
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
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
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
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
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
and The Warning
to be listened to as a group.
I guess that many people will know that York Bowen wrote his Twenty-Four
‘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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.