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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Fragments from Hans Andersen, Opp. 58 and 61 (1920-21) [27:17]
Concert Study for piano No. 1 in G flat major, Op. 9 No. 2 (pub 1917) [4:41]
Concert Study for piano No. 2 in F major, Op. 32 (c.1911 pub 1920) [3:07]
12 Studies for piano, Op. 46 (c.1919) [31:27]
Nicolas Namoradze (piano)
rec. July 2019, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth
HYPERION CDA68303 [66:33]

Over the last couple of decades, much valuable work has been done on behalf of York Bowen’s music and it’s possible, as never before, to gauge the orchestral and chamber music as well as the solo piano works in such a way that illuminates the breadth of his compositional span. With this release we encounter music of virtuosity, pedagogy and character study.

The Fragments from Hans Andersen were published in two separate volumes by Swan in 1920 and 1921 (the work is divided into three parts) and consists of ten narrative ‘mood pictures’ as Francis Potts describes them in his erudite sleeve note. Bowen’s powers of compressed characterisation needed to be sharp and fortunately, for the most part, they were. The burnished idyllic lyricism of the Snowdrop comes with a nuanced reflection on mortality (the snowdrop emerges in sunlight too early and perishes) whilst The metal pig, an ornamental statue that comes to life, depicts a whirlwind ride. Noble rolled chords, rich in bardic song, announce the arrival of The bird of popular song which then generates a more obvious avian profile. These details should suggest what Bowen is trying to do in this work, drawing on Mussorgskian elements here, Debussian impressionism there (try No. 9 A leaf from the sky) and even the legacy of nineteenth century studies. He is at his most effective in the romantic reverie of the last fragment, A picture from the fortress wall. Bowen was clearly keen to promote these pieces when he recorded in 1926 (see review) and duly set down Thumbelina and The Windmill. Nicolas Namoradze matches the composer in the theatricality of the latter, but Bowen is more whimsical and characterful in the former.

The Twelve Studies, Op. 46 are very different. Bowen performed some of them in recital, deliberately programming them with Schumann’s Études symphonique but the primary intention must have been as teaching aids. Each numbered piece bears a specific technical descriptor; ‘For forearm rotation’ for example or ‘For finger staccato’. The powerful chordal pounding of the first study perfectly realises Bowen’s instruction regarding ‘Chords of heavy quality’, though elsewhere, in nineteenth century pedagogic tradition, we get will o’the wisp effects, elegance and caprice. Some of the studies bear certain similarities to his more descriptive pieces but in the main this is scholarly stuff, albeit at its best when generating a powerful atmosphere. This is true of the fifth study which evokes Debussy in its central panel in a diaphanous stream of effects. The study ‘For various pedal effects’ is the longest, the one for octave playing the most strenuous, that for passagework ‘brilliancy’ the most Chopin-Lisztian. These studies open up a new slant on Bowen’s own technical prowess as well as reminding us what he was doing c.1919.

The two Concert Studies are difficult to date but were published in 1917 and 1920 respectively. These are both virtuosic affairs, the later one explicitly Lisztian, and demand the utmost in technique and flair, both of which are happily supplied in these excellent performances.

In fact, Namoradze, with another first class Wyastone recording, does everything required to bring these pieces to life. As noted earlier, there could have been a touch more wit in the Andersen pieces but there’s no lack of romance, and drama. Given the nature of the works this is assuredly not the place to start if you’re new to the composer but for those who are long-time admirers there are revealing things here.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John France

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