York BOWEN (1884-1961)
String Quartet No. 2 in D minor Op. 41 (1922) [28.29]
String Quartet No. 3 in G major Op. 46b (1919) [27.24]
Phantasy Quintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet Op. 93 (1932) [14.02]
Archaeus String Quartet; Timothy Lines (bass clarinet)
rec. Recital Room, Tonbridge School, Kent, 16, 18, 20 December 2001. DDD

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, reviewed again after it 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 this sound-world.

Gary Higginson