Naxos are providing a valuable service by licensing these discs, formerly on the British Music Society's own label (reviews
), for wider distribution. Since its recording in 2001, York Bowen's stature as a composer has increased considerably with a wide range of music available for the first time - indeed these three performances were world premieres. Read any of the accepted biographical sources and they will tell you that the first two decades of the twentieth century were when Bowen's star shone brightest. Given that the two quartets performed here - in fact Bowen only
two surviving works in the genre since No.1 is lost - date from the end of this golden phase one might expect them to be amongst his finest works.
This is where I struggle with Bowen's music. My head tells me I ought to enjoy it more but with rare exceptions when I listen to it my heart tells me otherwise. For sure there is a remarkable compositional facility; at his peak music seemed to flow from him in an unquenchable stream. However, as the century progressed his refusal to reflect any of the musical developments of the time increasingly seems stubbornly obtuse and outmoded. Allied to that, I find that the more I listen to different Bowen the less I have a strong sense of his compositional identity. Both of the quartets here are technically accomplished works which follow fairly predictable three movement forms; a central slow movement - both marked poco lento
- framed by a serious first movement and a lighter-hearted finale. John Talbot - who produced the disc as well - in his liner suggests that the works were written concurrently around the end of World War I. Although near simultaneous these are works fulfilling different roles. No.2 was published - albeit not until 1922 - and wears a public face. Although given a key there is a strong sense of harmonic freedom but nothing like the extraordinary fluidity of say Zemlinsky's Second Quartet which I recently reviewed. In many ways that is where the problem for me lies; this music possesses neither the remarkable musical experiments of its continental contemporaries or the individual identity of its British counterparts. John Talbot quotes from Thomas Dunhill's entry in the 1929 Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music; "... in his flair for effect, and in his ability to juggle with his themes, he takes his place as a facile exponent ..." In fairness I should say the rest of the quote throws a more complimentary light on the composer but I tend to agree with the damning implications of the above phrase. It strikes me that Bowen's most impressive work either includes or is written solely for piano - so no surprise perhaps that the Bowen 'revival' was spearheaded by recitals of his piano works (Hyperion sonatas
, Hyperion recital
); still the music of his I return to most often and most enthusiastically.
When the Op.41 was published it was done so under the auspices of The Carnegie Trust who judged it; "a well-written, pleasing, and effective piece ... presenting no undue difficulties". One of my favourite little books, The Well-tempered String Quartet
from 1949 offers this opinion; "thoroughly sane and wholesome music, it gives all the instruments an innings which they can enjoy, though here and there the part-writing may be suggestive of orchestral, rather than true chamber-music, effects." Talbot rightly queries the "no undue difficulties" comment - this is very demanding and unrelentingly technical music. The entry mentioning orchestral effects is astute. In the Op.41 quartet, Bowen favours extended passages in octaves between two instruments or canonic effects with motifs echoed between parts. Melodies in octaves are a bane of string quartets - microscopic issues of tuning swallowed up in an orchestral section are mercilessly exposed with just two instruments. The Archaeus Quartet give energetically committed performances throughout the disc but there are occasional minor intonation issues in just such passages. Leader Ann Hooley plays the virtuosic Violin 1 parts with exactly the right sense of Romantic drama and passion. Indeed the entire quartet deserves praise for the convincing style they bring to the music albeit by occasionally sacrificing finesse. Worth remembering that this is unlikely to be repertoire this quartet are asked for often if ever in concert so the preparation for this recording must have been a labour of love and considerable dedication.
Another Bowen stylistic quirk is to take an essentially simple diatonic melody and then treat it in an ever-increasingly chromatic manner. The second movement Poco Lento
in the Op.41 quartet is just such an instance. The tune itself, differently harmonised could have graced a salon ballad. How well it responds to the extensive reworking I am not sure. It's an approach Cyril Scott used too and I must admit I find the density of both the part-writing and the harmony ultimately overwhelms the material to the detriment of both.
Perhaps because of this, I find I was more impressed by the relative simplicity of the unpublished Third Quartet. Talbot suggests that if indeed they were written as a concurrent pair then the Third is the private face of the Second's public man. All of the same compositional fingerprints are still in evidence in No.3 but there is a marked sense of a less conscious striving for 'big' effects - the semplice
marking to first movement allegro is welcome. Indeed the whole quartet is less effortful and more successfully conceived for the chamber music idiom - even if Bowen still persists with those pesky lines in octaves. Likewise, there are times when Bowen seems to add decorative pianistic figurations to the parts for no particular reason which ups the technical complexity without adding anything to the musical argument. The closing pages of the Finale allegro assai
tax the players to their limit in just this way but it makes for an exciting, if occasionally perilous, conclusion to the work.
The sense in which Bowen became increasingly isolated as the musical world moved on is emphasised in the Phantasy Quintet. It is very hard to hear this as being written fifteen years after the companion quartets let alone the music Bowen was writing a decade earlier than that. In part this is because Bowen is looking back to the Phantasy form with which the publisher Cobbett tried to regenerate British chamber composition in 1905 but also because of its musical content. The interest lies more in the choice of the bass clarinet rather than the form or indeed the manner of compositional execution. If there are any other works written using this instrument in a soloistic manner I do not know them. Timothy Lines is a fine and accomplished player - he plays with a lyrical ease which defies any sense that this is a clumsy or leaden instrument. Again, Bowen's fluency of composition impresses and he tackles the issue of where the 'voice' of the bass clarinet lies within the overall texture effectively. Sometimes he uses it to reinforce bass lines and textures and at others he gives it beautifully mellow lyrical lines. Overall, I enjoyed this the most of the three works on the disc. In part this is because the chosen form forces Bowen's hand into being more concise and concentrated in his writing. Although neither of the quartets are overly long there is more than an occasional sense that Bowen lets the material expand beyond its ideal length especially in No.2.
The engineering of the disc is good in a neutral and unfussy way. The stereo soundstage is not that wide but within it the individual instruments are clearly positioned through the density of Bowen's part-writing. By not providing the quartet with the most flattering or glamorous of sounds there are occasions when the string sound is not as warm as many recent discs I have listened to. Conversely this would seem to be an accurate record of how this quartet sounds. John Talbot's liner is concise but informative.
A valuable disc for those who wish to expand their knowledge of Bowen's work and the British String Quartet in the first part of the twentieth century. However, this is not music that seriously challenges the core repertoire of that period.