York Bowen’s music has been enjoying something of a renaissance
in recent years, at least on disc, thanks to the efforts of
enterprising independent labels such as Chandos, Dutton and
Hyperion. This important issue brings us the first-ever recording
of his First Symphony and restores the Second Symphony to the
The First Symphony was penned while Bowen, then aged eighteen,
was still a student at the Royal Academy of Music. It appears
that the work had to wait until 2010 for its long-delayed first
performance when it was at last revealed thanks to the enterprise
of the English
Music Festival. Cast in three movements and scored for a
moderately sized orchestra it makes an extremely pleasing impression.
The first movement is full of charm and ease – and precocious
confidence – and the music is most attractive, not least the
lovely, graceful second subject, (first heard at 2:15). Throughout
the movement the scoring is transparent and commendably light;
indeed, this is a feature of the whole work. In his excellent
notes Robert Matthew-Walker refers to “a natural warmth of direct
expression” and I’d say that’s particularly true of the second
movement. This opens with a beguiling theme on the clarinet
and the whole movement just seems to sing from start to finish.
The finale is lively and engaging; its opening material sounds
scherzo-like. Later (at around 4:40 and again at 8:58) there’s
a brief passage that’s so reminiscent of Schumann that it sounds
almost like a direct quote.
This symphony may not be, perhaps, a work to set the world alight
but it’s charming and very skilfully fashioned and much too
enjoyable to languish unplayed on a library shelf somewhere.
Sir Andrew Davis and the excellent BBC Philharmonic make the
best possible case for it.
Seven years separate the two symphonies and it would appear
that this period of time saw a step-change in Bowen’s compositional
skills and confidence. The First Symphony was assured but its
successor is assertive, especially in the first and last of
its four movements. The scoring is much more expansive in the
later work, including a very resourceful and effective harp
part and a six-strong horn section – Bowen played the
horn, as well as the viola, to professional standard as well
as being a prodigiously talented pianist.
The first movement of the Second lasts only about a minute longer
than the corresponding movement of the First but it feels more
expansive and ambitious. Bowen seems to me to handle his material
with confidence and he scores the music effectively and, indeed,
with some flair. There’s an urgency and power in the writing
that wasn’t present in the previous symphony and Bowen’s readiness
to use the brass section is especially noticeable - arguably
the brass writing is a bit over-enthusiastic at times.
The second movement starts with a ripe horn solo – how Bowen
must have enjoyed allocating the melody to his own instrument!
– underpinned by what Robert Matthew-Walker rightly calls “a
richly upholstered texture”. It’s an impressive movement, containing
a couple of passionate, though not overwrought climaxes. My
ear was caught particularly by Bowen’s evocative writing for
the harp. The scherzo, which comes next, is deft and light –
one imagines an early twentieth-century Mendelssohn. The music
is expertly scored – note the effective and rather unusual writing
for the contrabassoon. The entire movement is a delight, right
up to the delicate final pay-off. The finale is sweeping and
confident. Again, Bowen’s scoring, if somewhat on the full side
at times, is most interesting and resourceful and the melodic
impulse of the music is strong, as has been the case throughout
the symphony. The movement is given an ardent performance by
Davis and the BBC Philharmonic, who play with great conviction
but, to be honest, that statement is equally applicable to the
The Second Symphony has been recorded before, by Douglas Bostock
His version, through which I first got to know the piece, is
a good one but it’s no longer available, I believe, and it was
not included in the recent boxed set that contained many of
Bostock’s recordings of English music (review).
In any case, the coupling of the First Symphony on this new
Chandos is a more logical one and this, plus the quality of
Sir Andrew Davis’s performance, would make it a clear first
choice anyway. I learned from Brian Wilson’s review
of the download version of this release that Chandos originally
planned to invite the late Vernon Handley to conduct these recordings
and that after his death Rumon Gamba was mooted as a replacement.
But while I’m sure either of those conductors would have done
Bowen’s music full justice by no stretch of the imagination
should Sir Andrew Davis be thought of as a third choice. He
conducts with great belief in the scores, both of which he invests
with life, energy and a strong lyrical impulse. His contribution
to this release is absolutely first class and further enhances
his reputation as a formidable champion of British music.
I’m sure Sir Andrew would be quick to acknowledge the superb,
responsive and committed playing by the BBC Philharmonic. So
assured is their playing that one might think these were repertoire
pieces. They’re very far from that and they’re never likely
to be. My advice to admirers of York Bowen’s music and, indeed,
to anyone interested in British music of the twentieth century,
would be to snap up this excellent release without delay. These
symphonies may not quite rank with the great symphonies by Elgar,
Vaughan Williams or Walton but they have a great deal to offer
and will reward careful listening.
The Chandos recordings are in the finest traditions of the house
and, as I’ve already indicated, the booklet notes are first