Edwin York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Viola Sonata No.1 in C minor Op.18 (1905) [30:05]
Phantasy for Viola and Piano Op.54 (1918) [14:12]
Viola Sonata No.2 in F major (1905) [27:01]
The Bridge Duo (Matthew Jones (viola); Michael Hampton (piano))
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales, 28-29 March and 4 June 2011
NAXOS 8.572580 [71:18]  

York Bowen is quite probably the English composer from the first half of the 20th century whose star has been most firmly ascendant in the last decade or so. When I first became interested in music of the so-called English Renaissance his name when mentioned at all tended to be as a footnote to others - then more famous - who had shared their time at the Royal Academy of Music. Little if any of his work could be found in the recorded music catalogue. The sea-change was Stephen Hough's revelatory piano recital on Hyperion revealing a keyboard composer - at least - of real stature. Since then various companies have given us symphonies, concertos, chamber works as well as much more piano music. The fact that this has been shared between several major companies such as Hyperion, Chandos and Dutton to name but three (Centaur and ClassicO deserve a vote of thanks too) shows that his music is no longer considered a forgotten byway. Now Naxos enter the frame with this very fine disc of major viola works. I have to admit to being least impressed by Bowen the orchestral composer. The very facility and technique that gave him a remarkable Proms debut at 19 as soloist in his own Piano Concerto No.1 I find gives his work a polished anonymity and cosmopolitan generic romanticism that whilst far from unappealing does not burrow its way into your subconscious in the way the greatest music does. 

That might read as a bit of a dismissive comment but I do hasten to emphasise that I feel this about the orchestral music. In the areas of his particular speciality - the piano and viola - the level of individuality and 'something to say' is significantly higher. So it proves here. This is an excellent well-filled disc showcasing three large-scale but instantly appealing works. Two things strike me immediately; just how early a developer as a composer Bowen was and just what a galvanic influence Lionel Tertis was. The two sonatas both date from 1905 when the composer was just 21. If you go back to Bowen's immediate contemporaries at the RAM or Royal College none were producing such consistently polished work at such a young age. Contemporaries referred to Bowen as 'the English Rachmaninov'. At the time this was undoubtedly meant as a compliment from a century later there is a hint of double-edgedness. Bowen steadfastly refused to be drawn in by either Nationalism or the Folk-song movement. No doubt this produces a huge sigh of relief for many listeners who have had their fill of folk-song fantasies and regional dances. In its place Bowen writes fluently lyrical melodies that teeter on the edge of salon-sentimental. The opening theme of the Sonata No.1 here is an example of what I mean [track 1 around 1:15]. Matthew Jones in his brief but interesting liner makes the point that harmonically Bowen has the technique to slip through keys at an almost bewildering rate. Not that that is apparent to the listener since the music stays resolutely tonal. What is apparent is the virtuosity required of the viola player. Tertis encouraged composers to write in the same manner, and expecting the same technical address, for the viola as they would the violin. Tertis's ability literally inspired more than one generation of English composers but the complexity of the music they wrote has meant much has languished under-performed ever since. The Bridge Duo prove to be absolutely first rate advocates both technically and stylistically. Jones has a slightly leaner and more agile tone than some violists which suits the febrile mood of the music well and he is well partnered by pianist Michael Hampton. Despite their sterling advocacy I do find the Sonata No.1 in particular to be almost too fluent, the emotional path it tracks is just a little too obvious and predictable. The second movement Poco Lento is a case in point, the main melody has an air of a spiritual which then blends very expertly into a central flowing second subject with the viola singing a long melody over rippling piano. The return to the 'spiritual' is very pleasant because its a nice tune beautifully played but there's no sense - in the music as written - that in any way is this a hard-won path. Because this is very well played indeed and of easy appeal I am sure many listeners will respond to this more intensely than I. Indeed, the finale of this first sonata proves to be the most interesting in that it is the most overtly dramatic - and virtuosic - but more importantly the melodic voice with which Bowen speaks is the most individual. Personally, I respond more to the pithier, unsettled fury that besets just about any of Bax's viola-centric works. Recently I reviewed the remarkable Bantock Sonata and he achieves a far wider emotional and musical range than Bowen. Between the two 1905 Sonatas the CD places the 1918 Phantasy. If Tertis inspired all things viola then William Cobbett inspired a huge array of British chamber music with his 'Phantasy' composition competition. The intervening fifteen years - and halving the performance time - has a majorly beneficial effect on the work. The musical gestures are bigger but somehow more concentrated. The virtuosity level if anything is cranked up another notch or two and Jones and Hampton are especially impressive with the stormy sweep they achieve - Jones' tone never hardens or falters as he rides the waves of Hampton's full-toned and exciting piano playing. There is a darker, more heart-felt sombre tone to the central panel of this work [track 4 around 7:15] which is infinitely profounder and more touching than the easy charm of the earlier sonata. The mood change to the positively merry final section is something of surprise - all the more so since in these Phantasy works the sections are played without a break but the final climatic pages are impressively exultant - an emotion captured with easy excellence by the fine Bridge Duo.
The disc is completed by returning to the second of the 1905 sonatas which - although in a major key to the first's minor - seems to walk a more immediately dramatic path. Certainly the virtuosity quotient for the violist is higher than in its close companion. Again, it would be churlish to be anything but impressed with Jones not just for the technical facility he displays but also his wholehearted identification with the idiom. His subtle use of little bending portamenti is totally right for this music and helps ratchet up the heady Romantic atmosphere of the music - the fact that it remains resolutely un-English sounding might well recommend it to some listeners! The central Grave [track 6] packs much more of an emotional punch than the comparable movement in the first sonata. Again, I find the sheer jolliness of the closing Allegro giocoso rather at odds with the music that precedes it; almost as if Bowen is saying "I didn't really mean all that emotional stuff you know". The players toss it all off with the requisite good humour and easy virtuosity [listening to the thundering piano around track 7 3:10] but again I find the overall arc of the work to be undermined - this has more of the feel of a finale of a suite rather than the through-thread of a sonata.
This is another high quality release technically by Naxos. They have used the Nimbus studio at Wyastone. Engineer/Producer Michael Ponder has produced a very well balanced recording indeed; full and immediate with a pretty much perfect balance between the instruments - I really like the rich and full piano tone. Interestingly, this was the same venue EM Records used for the recording of the Bantock sonata mentioned above - suffice to say, good though the engineering there was I think this disc is significantly better. It is worth remembering that Michael Ponder is a very able violist in his own right - a fact that gives him an empathy for the performers and in turn those performers a security that they are in sympathetic and knowledgeable hands. With Naxos now a mid-price label time will tell whether curiosity-driven collectors will buy this disc whereas at bargain price they might well have felt inclined. Not that Naxos have the field to itself; Dutton have released an identical coupling from violist James Boyd and Hyperion have a two-disc set of the complete Bowen viola music played by Lawrence Power. I have heard neither of these competing sets but on a purely technical and musical level the Bridge Duo seem to me to be extremely fine and totally impressive on every level. Admirers of Bowen will not have any pause for thought and certainly people who enjoy fine recitals of viola and piano playing will find much to give pleasure here. The Phantasy proves itself to be a powerful work and the 2nd Sonata at least of considerable interest. For me, Bowen remains an interesting and highly competent but ultimately not major composer. 

Nick Barnard
Those who enjoy fine viola recitals will find much to give pleasure here.