York BOWEN (1884-1961) The complete works
for violin and piano
Romance in D flat major (1900) [6:06]
Violin Sonata in B minor Op.7 (1902) [15:38]
Suite in D minor Op.28 (pub. 1909) [28:13]
Phantasie in E minor Op.34 (1911) [14:52]
Serenade (1917) [4:13]
Valse harmonique (1917) [3:31]
Melody for the G string Op.47 (pub. 1923) [5:12]
Albumleaf (pub. 1927) [1:50]
Melody (pub. 1928) [3:35]
Allegretto Op.105 (pub. 1940) [5:10]
Violin Sonata in E minor Op.112 (1945) [19:24]
Song (1949) [5:15]
Bolero (1949) [3:47]
Chloë Hanslip (violin); Danny Driver (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, 29 March – 2 April 2012
HYPERION CDA67991/2 [58:01 + 58:52]
As I wrote when reviewing a Naxos disc of the two
Viola Sonatas; 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 – on disc if not in the concert hall. He has
been fortunate in that premium labels such as Chandos, Dutton and Hyperion
have led the way pretty much guaranteeing products of superior quality
in both technical and artistic terms. Hyperion return to the fray here
bolstering their already substantial Bowen catalogue with a highly impressive
collection of his complete works for violin and piano.
By bringing together Bowen-specialist pianist Danny Driver and the extraordinarily talented and charismatic violinist Chloë Hanslip Hyperion have what on paper should be pretty much a dream-team. Happily, so it proves – unfamiliar repertoire presented with complete conviction, technical aplomb and such subtleties and nuances of interpretation that one would think this duo had been playing this music together for years.
Some brief biographical detail bears repetition; Bowen made a tremendous impact as a young composer/performer gaining the soubriquet “The English Rachmaninov” reflecting his romantic virtuosity in both disciplines. Certainly, it could be argued that he ‘punched above his weight’ in terms of compositional facility and fluency finding a confidently individual style much quicker than his – ultimately – more illustrious colleagues. The curiosity – some might say ‘problem’ – with Bowen is that as the decades passed - the music offered here spans 45 years - Bowen’s style evolved remarkably little so that the Late Romantic lion of 1900 became the time-warped-throw-back of the Nuclear Age. From a stand-point another seventy odd years later that kind of hierarchical time-line seems increasingly irrelevant and the ‘worth’ of the music is all that remains.
Both performers here are simply excellent. Some of the works offered have been recorded elsewhere – none of which I have heard – but this is the first complete survey and would have value as such even if it were not as near-definitive as I feel it must surely be. Chloë Hanslip has always impressed me with her questing musical mind. Even in an age awash with firebrand virtuosi Hanslip stands out not just for the rock-solid quality of her technique but the imagination and fantasy of her playing. In the very best and most complimentary way her playing reminds me of some of the finest and most individual players of the past. There is an elegance and gallantry to her phrasing that cannot be taught or practiced – its just there. In a counter-intuitive way this becomes especially clear in the slighter works which make up a substantial part of this two-disc set. It can be argued that it is ‘easier’ - a very relative term given the technical demands of this music - to make big and impressive musical gestures in works that operate on a similar big and impressive scale. Conversely, to find the understated slightest hint of rubato, a flick of a portamento or the subtlest variation of vibrato speed that gives a deliberately slight piece a stature or emotional weight above and beyond its status is real genius. In her performing colleague Danny Driver she has the ideal co-creator of musical magic. Driver has technique to spare, an important consideration given Bowen predilection for large-scale late-Romantic keyboard writing but again – vitally – he understands when to pull back from another potentially rhetorical gesture giving even the most minor works an unsuspected stature.
Bowen seems to have been a practical composer. I mean that in the sense that he needed to earn a wage from music throughout his life. Not for him the inherited wealth of a Bax or indeed Vaughan Williams which freed those composers pretty much to write what and when the spirit moved. The website dedicated to Bowen mentions the fact that he had to sell the family home and live in rented accommodation to ease financial worries. The backbone of Bowen’s career was as a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, competition adjudicator and examiner from 1909 up to his death in 1961. Interestingly, I think the music offered here can be seen as reflecting a certain pragmatic financial imperative underlying any artistic/creative impulse. So we are also given works to impress (and possibly flatter) concert violinists from the early part of his career. The Suite in D minor Op.28 was published using French titles – all musical things foreign seeming to be of extra merit in Edwardian England – and dedicated, sycophantically suggests the liner note, to Fritz Kreisler. Then there are the commissioned pieces – the Phantasie in E minor written for the famous Walter Wilson Cobbett which accrued status as well as money. Filling out the discs are a substantial number of didactic works written – and one assumes paid – to order by the newly formed Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music – for their Graded Examinations lists. Likewise, there are a number of smaller occasional ‘simple’ works feeding the market for Salon music. Then lastly, the most musically substantial if not longest work here; the stubbornly Romantic Violin Sonata in E minor Op.112 from 1945. This is pure supposition on my behalf but this feels as if Bowen has become tired of writing to order. This is him at his most unrepentantly reactionary and virtuosic. There’s fire in his belly still, at a time when close contemporaries such as Bax were all but written out. Actually I find this last work, a musical embodiment of a life’s creed, rather powerfully moving; all the more so precisely because it clearly doesn’t care two figs whether it is modern enough.
Hyperion has chosen to make each of the discs a balanced mix of works of different styles and periods. This is a logical choice and in effect makes for a pair of varied recitals. My only observation is that the main pair of works offered on disc one rather outguns the pair on the second disc. Also, by starting with what is probably the most wholly satisfying work of all – the late Sonata mentioned above – there is a very slight sense of peaking too soon.. My own preference in such a complete compilation is to present the works chronologically. In this particular instance it would present the finest work (nearly) last. This pair of discs runs just shy of two hours of music. There are four main works; two titled Sonatas from the opposite ends of Bowen’s compositional career, a Phantasie written as a Cobbett commission in 1911 and – the most substantial by some way lasting nearly a half hour – the four movement Suite previously mentioned.
The early Sonata, written when Bowen was barely eighteen is full of precocity as well as some clumsiness. For his youth it is a remarkable work full of commanding and confident gestures. Occasionally it does feel as though he is experimenting with these ideas as independent ‘moments’ rather than being able to create a thoroughly coherent whole – work in progress rather the fully finished article. The Suite I find more impressive than the Phantasie. This is simply because the former is a set of four well defined character pieces which are happily contrasted. The second movement Barcarolle [CD1 track 2] being especially atmospheric. In contrast, the constraints of the Cobbett piece – a single movement with interrelated musical material – seems to work against Bowen’s instinctive feel for form. The sections are put together in a less than wholly convincing manner. So it is in the last of the large-scale works – the 1945 Sonata - that Bowen finds the best balance between his music material, his technical resource to use that material and a satisfying emotional shape to the work as a whole.
Without wishing to labour the point it struck me repeatedly that Hanslip is perfectly attuned to this genre. The actual sound she makes is a carefully controlled well-projected tone which lacks nothing in weight and power when required. This is allied to a tightly focused fast vibrato that feels ideal for this style of music. Best of all is her intuitive handling of the rubato which is absolutely central to and makes the best of this occasionally sentimental style. This in its turn allows her to be deliciously coquettish one moment and passionately direct the next. She displays real understanding and affection for music that for too long has languished in the shadows at best or been crucified on the altar of middle Grade Examination lists. All credit to both performers for the care lavished here on repertoire that one expects they will rarely be asked to perform in concert.
Indeed, it was in precisely these nominally minor works less bound to impress with virtuosic display and big gestures, that I took the greatest pleasure. The late Song [CD2 track 2] has a simple nostalgic grace quite at odds with its 1949 composition date but receives a performance of melting beauty. Then again, listen to how Hanslip and Driver pull right back for the repeat of the near-naïve tune in Melody [CD2 track 4 – 2:22] giving something that teeters on the edge of banal a poise and understated emotional weight perhaps even the composer did not envisage. I love the fantasy Hanslip and Driver find in the 1917 Serenade and the companion Valse Harmonique [CD2 tracks 9-10]. The problem – if indeed it is a problem – I have with Bowen is that he developed much less in those fifty revolutionary years from 1900 to 1950 than you feel he could. With the skill and resources he had one wonders what might have been. Yet the 1900 Romance [another charmer – CD2 track 8] is really not that different in spirit or vocabulary from the 1949 Song. Does that matter? – probably not but somehow it does niggle at me more here than say with Korngold at whom exactly the same accusation has been leveled.
Given Bowen’s virtuosity on the piano it should come as no surprise that he writes virtuosic parts for the instrument. Driver steers a careful path where the sheer scale of the writing does not descend into bombast. In this the performers are greatly helped by Hyperion’s subtly sophisticated engineering and production – Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon at the helm of a typically excellently produced set. Potton Hall has become a preferred venue for many similar recordings but this strikes me as one of the finest with a perfect balance between instruments. Francis Potts contributes an insightful liner to underline the premium quality of this set.
For those who have become Bowen collectors the set is a compulsory purchase and one I cannot imagine it being possible to supplant in a very long time. Both player’s reputations are further enhanced but I have to say my admiration of Hanslip in particular is increased. She is not a performer who has recorded any British music previously. Visiting her website I borrow this quote from a review of a RPO concert in 2010: “an artist of exceptional musicianship, with a wisdom and grace beyond her years” – just so. A whole raft of unconsidered repertoire now strikes me as tailor-made for her very special talents. Even by the high standards of the house this is a superlative pair of discs. Bowen might not be a genius, but if ever a pair of performers were going to persuade me otherwise, this would be the team.