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York BOWEN (1884-1961) 
Clarinet Sonata in F minor, op. 109 (1943) [15:31] 
Rhapsody Trio, op. 80 (1924-25) [13:32] 
Piano Trio movement in D minor (c. 1900) [11:06] 
Phantasy Quintet, for bass clarinet and string quartet in D minor, op. 93 (c. 1933) [14:11] 
Piano Trio in E minor, op. 118 (1946) [24:07] 
Robert Plane (clarinets); Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); Benjamin Frith (piano)); Mia Cooper (violin) (quintet); David Adams (viola) (quintet)
rec. Champs Hill Music Room, West Sussex; 11 January 2013 (quintet), 29 April 2013 (sonata), 30 April and 1 May 2013 (trios) 
CHANDOS CHAN10805 [78:29]

In the last few years three labels in particular – Chandos, Dutton Epoch and Hyperion – have done much to revive interest in the music of York Bowen. I’ve bought a good number of these discs and I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering Bowen. This fine new disc contains an excellent survey of some of his chamber works. Most of them have already appeared on disc – only the Piano Trio movement in D minor is claimed as a first recording – but both of the clarinet works were new to me.
The earliest here is the single movement from Bowen’s unfinished Piano Trio in D minor. Not only was it never completed but it would seem that the movement itself was left in a form that has required some editing to make it available for performance; this has been undertaken by the members of the Gould Trio. It seems that the music was written around 1900, which means it’s the work of a teenager. The music is lighter in character than is the case with the other pieces on this disc and it’s recognisably the product of a composer who is still searching for his own voice. However, it’s far from negligible. The music sounds confident at all times and there’s no little assurance in the young Bowen’s musical material and the way he handles it.
The Rhapsody Trio, composed some 25 years later, is much more mature in every sense. It’s in a single movement, consisting of nine short sections. Apparently, it was composed for the annual dinner of the Federation of British Music Industries in 1926 but, as annotator Robert Matthew-Walker justly observes, it’s not a lightweight ‘after-dinner’ piece and I think very highly of it. The magical opening is mysterious and beautifully written for the medium of the piano trio – as is the whole piece. After this opening there’s some lovely and imaginative writing: the music includes some animated episodes and some richly lyrical stretches. Eventually, Bowen brings things full circle, returning to the mood of the opening in a very satisfying way.
The E minor Piano Trio is the latest and longest work on the programme. It’s in three movements, the first of which has a grand, confident opening which raises expectations – which are fulfilled – that this will be a big statement. The opening movement has a very flexible, fluent structure: there are no fewer than ten marked tempi as Bowen mixes lyrically romantic episodes with passages of ardour and energy. The central movement is a lovely creation, full of dreamy, poetic musings which the members of the Gould Trio deliver in a winningly sympathetic way. The finale is then dominated by music that is spirited and cheerful. There’s an extremely good rival recording from the Endymion Ensemble, who also offer an excellent version of the Rhapsody Trio (review). I wouldn’t care to choose between them though I have the impression that the slightly richer recorded sound on the Chandos disc enhances the passion which the Goulds bring to the music. Bowen admirers will want both recordings, especially as each disc contains other attractive music.
The two pieces involving clarinet require Robert Plane to play two different instruments. I know of many Clarinet Quintets but I can’t readily think of an example in which the woodwind instrument is a bass clarinet. This most unusual scoring works very well and the bass clarinet is very successfully integrated into the ensemble. In particular, Bowen deploys it with either the viola or the cello – or both – to most imaginative effect. The timbre of the wind instrument produces a texture that is often rather nuttier than would be the case if a conventional clarinet had been used. The work is in a single movement divided into seven continuous sections. The musical material is interesting and well-handled but even more fascinating are the sonorities which Bowen’s scoring produces. My ear was especially caught by a short passage commencing at 6:01 where the bass clarinet slides down to the depths of its register and is then accompanied for a few bars by sul ponticello strings; it’s an intriguing, if brief, passage. I love the short, gentle ending.
The Clarinet Sonata was written about a decade later. It’s a fine composition, cast in three movements. The longest is the first, marked Allegro moderato. The music is beautifully written for the clarinet. In his notes Robert Matthew-Walker describes the first subject as ‘fitting the instrument like a glove’. I agree entirely but, in truth, the description could apply to the entire sonata. Bowen exploits the singing quality of the clarinet and the full range of its compass most effectively in a splendid and highly appealing movement. There’s no slow movement; instead the middle one is marked Allegretto poco scherzando. Here much of the music is playful and perky. The finale is rondo-like and the material is full of interest and vitality. Fittingly, given that the composer was a virtuoso pianist, the piano part is equally important in this sonata and full of interest. In all it’s an excellent and most attractive work.
I enjoyed this disc very much indeed. Robert Plane excels in the two clarinet discs while throughout the programme the playing of the Gould Trio, augmented, as necessary, by either Mia Cooper or David Adams is marvellous. These six musicians are highly skilled and persuasive advocates for Bowen’s music. All five pieces are most attractive – and the E minor Piano Trio and Clarinet Sonata are particularly fine. Chandos live up to their usual high presentational standards in terms of both the recorded sound and the documentation.
John Quinn
Previous review: David Barker