Back in the early 1960s I had a piano teacher born I suppose
around 1898 who knew York Bowen and had often heard him play.
He told me, and I recalled it later in my diary, that “Bowen
had had much facility and little depth and had never realized
his potential”. I wasn’t surprised when a few years
later I tried to buy a record of some (any) music by Bowen that
I was greeted, even in the best classical shops, with incredulity
and blank faces. Yet now a large proportion of his output can
be heard on CD. He appears to have been much underrated as a
composer but perhaps this aspect of his career was eclipsed by
his work as a virtuoso performer. The British Music Society has
done much to rehabilitate York Bowen and this CD, which first
appeared in 2002, helps further.
I wrote the above and then read, in the useful CD booklet notes
by John Talbot, the following quotation from the insightful Thomas
Dunhill. Bowen “may be described as a Romanticist with
sympathies in the direction of the impressionist” and his “chamber
music is predominantly brilliant in style”. He continues: “In
his flair for effect ... he takes his place as a facile exponent
of an essentially healthy and breezy phase in modern art”.
These thoughts are relevant when listening to the Second Quartet
which opens this disc; the First Quartet, we are told, is not
extant. It is a three movement work which won a competition,
the ‘Carnegie Trust Award’. It gives the impression
of being the kind of work that would win a competition. As the
judges commented at the time “A well written and effective
piece in three movements, presenting no undue difficulty”.
John Talbot thinks that they meant to the performers.
He may be right, but the work, as he acknowledges, is brilliant
and “presents considerable difficulty in execution”.
No, I think the judges were referring to the listeners. The music
is logical and uses totally familiar territory in form, having
a sonata-form first movement for example and a ternary form slow
movement. In terms of key it ends where it began and modulates
no further than Rachmaninov would have taken us. In melody its
long-breathed phrases may have a touch of Debussy about them.
I like the piece but, I kept asking myself, why it has hardly
been played. Bowen is British. That is a problem as we hardly
ever promote our own. Ultimately however the work lacks a real
character of its own. In a cluttered market another pleasing
and well constructed string quartet just won’t catch on
unless it has a certain something else to commend it. The advocacy
of the Archaeus Quartet cannot be doubted. They bring out the
passionate middle section of the middle movement wonderfully
but the tone can become a little brittle especially in the more
excitable moments of the finale.
It may well be that my elderly piano teacher was, like many Englishmen
of his generation, rather suspicious of things ‘foreign’ even
worse of Englishmen in any way influenced by ‘foreign practices’.
If that was the case then he would have enjoyed much more, I
am sure, the Third Quartet. Sadly it was not published or probably
performed in Bowen’s lifetime so the opportunity never
arose. And No I haven’t printed the dates incorrectly above,
it does, apparently pre-date the Second Quartet and its sounds
like it. It is much more English-Pastoral especially in the first
movement. My eldest son, a London music student proclaimed that
it could be the Quartet that George Butterworth never wrote.
Early Ireland might equally come to mind. I don’t feel
that I can concur with John Talbot when he cautiously comments “it
is open to conjecture that these two quartets were written almost
concurrently, towards the end of or just after the First War”.
Stylistically they feel rather too different for that, so I find
myself wondering if the Third is not in fact the supposedly lost
First Quartet (some of which may be pre-war) revised and/or reworked.
Even so both works are in three movements with the outer movements
in sonata form and the slow one in ternary form. Both finales
begin with a jolly ‘fiddle-type’ melody accompanied
by pizzicato, so there are many similarities. The performers
play all of the exposition repeats but the music never outstays
its welcome. Again there are moments in the finale when things
get complex and the intonation seem not quite so secure. Even
so these are marvellously committed performances and we are in
the debt of this fine ensemble.
The ‘Phantasy-Quintet’ reminds us of the 1905 instigation
of the Cobbett Prize for British Chamber Music with the stipulation
that the ancient ‘Fantasy’ or ‘Fantasia’ form
be used. The opening reminded me instantly of Ravel and that
shimmering mood returns at the end. The form can be seen as three-movements-in-one.
But what a fascinating and probably unique combination. The silky
tones of the bass clarinet weave around the lower strings and
sometimes double the viola making a rich and vibrant texture.
The recording and the general balance is superb and Timothy Lines’ intonation
is immaculate especially in some rather unidiomatic phrases.
The haunting quality of the piece reminded me of another Phantasy
from this period - the Sextet of Eugene Goossens. The CD is brought
to a very satisfactory conclusion, leaving one wanting more of
see also reviews by Rob
Barnett, Lewis Foreman, Michael Bryant and