York BOWEN (1884-1961)
The Piano Sonatas
Piano Sonata No. 1 in B minor, Op. 6 (1902) [25:30]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 9 (1900s) [23:05]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 12 (1912) [20:10]
Short Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 35, No. 1 (1922) [13:22]
Piano Sonata No. 5 in F minor, Op. 72 (1923) [21:51]
Piano Sonata No. 6 in B flat minor, Op. 160 (1961) [14:40]
Danny Driver (piano)
rec. August 2008, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67751/2 [68:47 + 49:55]
My first association with the music of York Bowen was receiving
a review copy that featured his splendid Horn Quintet in
C major, Op 85. It was played by the Endymion Ensemble
with Stephen Sterling (horn) and recorded in London 2001. The
disc was Dutton Epoch CDLX 7115 (c/w Rhapsody Trio and
Trio in Three movements). I also enjoyed the 2001 recording
of Bowen’s second and third String Quartets and the Phantasy-Quintet
from the Archaeus Quartet with Timothy Lines (bass clarinet)
Music Society BMS426CD.
Best of all was a revelatory two disc set Music for Viola
recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk in 2007. It was played
by Lawrence Power (viola) and Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
CDA67651/2. I commended this release as one of my 2008 ‘Records
of the Year’.
Another Bowen disc that continues to provide pleasure is the
2005 Watford recording of the Violin Concerto in E minor,
Op 33 and Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op 11 performed
by Lorraine McAslan (violin), Michael Dussek (piano) with the
BBC Concert Orchestra under Vernon Handley on Dutton
Epoch CDLX 7169.
Thankfully we can now see that after a number of decades languishing
in relative obscurity York Bowen’s tonal and conservative music
with its elegant lyricism is enjoying a significant and deserved
revival. Dutton and Hyperion alongside the Chandos, BMS, ClassicO
and Lyrita can take considerable credit for spearheading this
resurgence of interest.
The works of Bowen, a former student at the Royal Academy of
Music (RAM), are steeped in the traditions of Brahms and Franck.
There is a real eclectic blend of influences that I hear from
late-Romantic composers such as Strauss, Elgar, Rachmaninov,
Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky and Delius; they’re all
there. At times one detects a French feel to their emotional
character and charm, with suggestions of English pastoral along
the way. Interestingly a trusted friend of mine who is a music
writer of long-standing heard the disc of Bowen’s second and
third String Quartets and Phantasy-Quintet without
knowing the identity of the composer (this he calls his “blind-date”).
My friend thought he was listening to a French composer, almost
certainly a pupil of Franck. To my ears these piano works predominantly
emulate the sound-world of Chopin, Rachmaninov and Medtner.
Without being pale imitations they never achieve quite the same
eminence or memorability as their distinguished models.
Owing to his prodigious talent as a pianist and his compositional
prowess Bowen was sometimes described as ‘the English Rachmaninov’.
With regard to his specialist instrument, and courtesy of Hyperion,
the Bowen catalogue can now boast an excellent premiere recording
of the complete set of piano sonatas played by Danny Driver.
It seems that all three early sonatas on the first disc are
receiving their first recordings. Driver is no stranger to Bowen’s
music having already recorded his Piano Concerto No. 3 in
G minor (Fantasia), Op. 23 and the Piano Concerto
No. 4 in A minor, Op. 88 with the BBC Scottish Symphony
Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins on Hyperion
I have heard soloist Driver perform York Bowen before in 2008
at the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, Manchester playing in a
recital that included the Bowen 5th Piano Sonata.
I sincerely hope it is not too long before I hear this splendid
pianist again in recital.
The first disc of the double set contains the three pre-Great
War piano sonatas. The Piano Sonata No. 1 in B minor,
Op. 6 is cast in four movements and is the longest of the set
of six sonatas. Published privately in 1902 the score bears
a dedication by the teenage Bowen to Claude Gascoigne his friend
at the RAM and piano duet partner. The opening Allegro con
fuoco is typically bittersweet and I found Driver’s interpretation
of the languorous Larghetto rather comforting. A light
and sweet Tempo di Minuetto precedes a tempestuous finale
that is not without contrasting episodes of relative calm and
A three movement score, the Piano Sonata No. 2 in C sharp
minor, Op. 9 seems to be a close contemporary to the B
minor Sonata, Op. 6. The opening Allegro is typically
dramatic with episodes of melancholy. Affectionate and comforting,
the Andante cantabile evokes scenes of snuggling up by
a roaring log fire on a cold winter’s evening. Marked Allegro
molto the finale is an impassioned outpouring played here
with significant ardour.
Completed in 1912, the three movement Piano Sonata No. 3
in D minor, Op. 12 is a score more technically and emotionally
developed than its predecessors. The opening movement Allegro
ma non troppo is typically stormy with a moment of veritable
tenderness. Driver delights in the light and appealing scoring
of the extended central movement Andante cantabile. I
just loved the red-blooded finale - one of Bowen’s finest
solo piano movements.
Disc two comprises the remaining three piano sonatas that Bowen
composed after the Great War. They span a near forty year period
that reaches to the early 1960s. The Piano Sonata No. 4 is
thought to have existed but no score has ever been found. Now
taking its place in the catalogues is the three movement Short
Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 35/1 - a real gem completed
in 1922. The score of the Short Sonata was dedicated
by the thirty-eight year old Bowen, “To my wife and son”.
The leisurely pace of the Andante con moto has a somewhat
pastoral atmosphere; maybe a verdant Alpine scene. The central
Lento expressivo is a glorious movement: melodic, moderately
dramatic and quite charming. I was struck by the appeal of the
fleet-footed and frolicsome Presto scherzando played
here with considerable verve.
Published before it was premiered, the Piano Sonata
No. 5 in F minor, Op. 72 was completed in 1923. It has been
said that the three movement score was designed to carry certain
similarities to Beethoven’s Appassionata. Thirty-eight
years were to separate this F minor score from Bowen’s
final piano sonata. With Driver’s natural assurance the opening
movement marked Moderato comes across as a restless mood
painting. In the Andante semplice I was struck by a warmth
and security I associate with a child’s nursery. Upbeat writing
in the engaging final movement oscillates between the whimsical
and the ardent.
From 1961, the year of Bowen’s death, the Piano Sonata No.
6 in B flat minor, Op. 160 is probably his final composition.
The late-Romantic writing doesn’t display any notion of diminishing
compositional capacity. However, in an era with younger composers
Berg, Prokofiev, Honegger, Hindemith, Poulenc, Shostakovich,
Messiaen, Britten and Tippett taking centre-stage it’s not surprising
that Bowen’s compositional style was considered anachronistic.
Thankfully we are now able to enjoy Bowen for his innate quality
rather than for the dynamic of the era in which it was written.
I especially enjoyed Driver’s playing of the swirling and heady
Romanticism of the opening movement. The reflective, affectionate
and often alluring mood of the Intermezzo is impressively
interpreted. Turbulent, with tremendous rhythmic zest, the rapt
appeal of the finale is also hard to resist.
With performances such as these a successful future for Danny
Driver seems assured. This young soloist plays with sympathy
and dedication, buoyancy and freshness. This is a splendid set
from Hyperion that should broaden York Bowen’s appeal still
further. Francis Pott has as usual done a fine job with the
booklet essay. Beautifully recorded by the Hyperion engineers
at the Henry Wood Hall with warmth and considerable clarity.
also further review of this set from Rob Barnett