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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
String Quartet No.2 in D minor Op.41 [28:42]
String Quartet No.3 in G major Op.46(b) [27:21]
Phantasy Quintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet Op.93 [14:21]
Archaeus Quartet
Timothy Lines (bass clarinet)
rec. 16, 18, 20 December 2001, Recital Room, Tonbridge School, Kent, UK
NAXOS 8.571366 [70:22]

York Bowen's music is now getting the attention it deserves. Dutton have helped promote his cause with several excellent releases, and Stephen Hough has recorded a CD of the composer's piano music for Hyperion which garnered positive reviews. On offer here are three world premiere recordings of his chamber music - two string quartets, and a Phantasy Quintet for bass clarinet and string quartet. Recorded in 2001, these recordings first appeared on a British Music Society CD (BMS426CD) . It is to be hoped that this Naxos release will bring these delightful and compelling works to a wider audience.

Having composed three string quartets, only two have survived. The String Quartet No.2 in D minor Op.41 was published in 1922 and dedicated to the Philharmonic Quartet (1915-24), who boasted Eugene Goossens as second violin. It is in three movements and, like the Third Quartet, has a central lento book-ended by two more spirited movements. The opening Allegro assai is of an extrovert character launching the work with an ebullient charm. This leads into a more wistful, and later dramatic section. What is evident is that Bowen had a great gift for melody, and the work displays a confidence and skill in string writing. The slow movement opens with a melancholic theme ushered in on the cello. This leads into a more comforting, lyrical section. A sprightly finale, with pizzicato accompaniment showcases some imaginative string writing, and the quartet ends upbeat.

The Third Quartet was completed in 1919 and remained unpublished in the composer's lifetime. There is no record of its first performance. Whereas the Op. 41 is of an extrovert character, the Op.46(b) is more reserved, inward looking and reluctant to show its hand as readily. It is underpinned by a degree of self-absorption. All this is evident in the lyrical first movement, which is stamped with a very English fingerprint. The slow movement, again marked lento like its predecessor is tinged with melancholy and is of a dark and brooding disposition. All is assuaged at the end of the movement, where peace, tranquillity and rest are finally found. In the finale, Bowen again features pizzicato prominently, yet despite the energy, circumspection prevails.

The highlight of the disc for me is the Phantasy Quintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet Op.93. An unusual combination, the bass clarinet is employed to great effect and beautifully realized by Timothy Lines, who plays with a lyrical sense of line and richness of tone. Composed around 1932, it was still unpublished, apparently, at the time of the recording, and there had been only two performances prior to that. It is cast in one continuous 14 minute movement, but broken into sections, moving along through a narrative of changing tempi and moods. The bass clarinet sustains a virtuosic profile throughout. The work shows a compositional wealth of resourcefulness, invention and flair. Beginning in sombre vein, some of it sounds quite ghostly and sinister. Bowen ratchets up the tempo in the middle section, but the work ends as it began in quiet composure.

The performances are in first-class sound quality, set in a warm and sympathetic acoustic. Balance between individual instruments could not have been bettered. The Archaeus Quartet have done much to champion lesser known composers with recordings of music by Minna Keal, Susan Spain-Dunk (Lorelt LNT114) and Leonard Salzedo amongst others. This is a must for chamber music lovers.

Stephen Greenbank

York Bowen resource page (with review index)