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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Fragments from Hans Andersen (1920/21), op. 58 Part I and II, op.61 Part III [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 (1920) [3:07]
12 Studies for piano, op.46 (1919) [31:27]
Nicolas Namoradze (piano)
rec. Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, 13-15 July 2019
HYPERION CDA68303 [66:21]

York Bowen’s music is immediately approachable and does not seriously challenge the listener, but that approachability is the problem. He never really changed his compositional style from his earliest works to his last. He did not join, or father, a ‘school’; he was not an experimentalist, a serialist or a modernist. His music is fundamentally Romantic and that, alas, was enough to consign him to oblivion long before his death. Fortunately, that obscurity is now being challenged.

The re-evaluation of York Bowen’s piano music has developed considerably over the past 25 years. I recall being amazed and impressed by Stephen Hough’s conspectus released on the Hyperion label back in 1996 (CDA66838). This included several of the magisterial 24 Preludes, op.102, the Piano Sonata No.5 in F minor, op72 and the ebullient ‘Moto perpetuo’ from the Suite Mignonne, op.39. It certainly left me wanting much more.  Seven years elapsed until Joop Celis began his extensive survey for Chandos (CHAN 10774). This six-year project resulted in four CDs covering a wide range of Bowen’s piano music. In 2007, a major two-CD exploration of this repertoire was issued by Mark Tanner on the Priory label (PRCD 887). Lyrita re-released York Bowen’s 1958 recital on CD in 2008 (REAM 2105). The following year, a remarkable 2-disc set featuring the complete Piano Sonatas was published by Danny Driver (Hyperion CDA67751/2). In the meantime, the piano concertos were recorded by Hyperion (nos.3 and 4) and Dutton (nos.1, 2, and 3) (Regular new British classical releases from Dutton Epoch seems to be a thing of the past). There are other recordings of York Bowen’s piano music available, including works for two pianos.

The last ten years have been less fruitful for York Bowen’s piano music; one highlight was Cristina Ortiz’s disc of the 24 Preludes op.102 on the Grand Piano label (GP637), so this present CD comes as a delightful 2021 New Year’s gift.

As a child, my ‘bedside books’ were the Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Nearly 60 years on, they still are, albeit now on my Kindle. To these two charming volumes have been added the twelve ‘Colour’ Books by fellow Scot, Andrew Lang. Many years ago, I found an old Associated Board Syllabus for Grade 7. It included the first of York Bowen’s Fragments from Hans Andersen, ‘The Snowdrop, or summer geck.’ (For the curious, a ‘geck’ is a Low German word for a ‘fool’.) I could not play it properly but was able to get the general drift. It is a truly lovely little invention, full of optimism and romance and the climax is sheer perfection. the story relates how a snowdrop was lured out by a sunbeam at the wrong time of the year. It is still able to bring a tear to my eye.

It was many years before I was able to examine the score of the complete Fragments, which is printed in three books.  The stories related are the above mentioned ‘Snowdrop’, ‘Thumbelina’, ‘The Metal Pig’, ‘The Golden Treasure’, ‘The Bird of Popular Song’, ‘The Marsh-King’s Daughter’, ‘The Windmill’, ‘The Hardy [Steadfast] Tin Soldier’, ‘A Leaf from the Sky’, and finally ‘A Picture from the Fortress [Castle Wall]’.

Each piece in the score is prefaced by a short text from the relevant story. Nevertheless, the impact is not narrative: they are not tone poems or programme music. They are mood pictures or perhaps even impressions resulting from the 36-year-old composer’s mature reflection on the Danish master’s immortal creations.  In this, York Bowen is entirely successful, with the Andersen allusions adding charm and delight to these exquisitely wrought pieces.

Most pianists will have come across ‘Studies’ and ‘Études’. These are designed to improve the technical and mechanical abilities of the pupil. Typically, a single ‘study’ engages one aspect of technique: arpeggios, octaves, trills etc. and usually there is little musical or emotional interest in these pedantic pieces. The major exceptions here prove the rule. No one would argue that Chopin’s or Liszt’s Études were dull or arcane. Those by Moscheles, Czerny and Cramer are equally musical in their effect. On the other hand, I have never been able to gain much pleasure from those by Debussy, otherwise one of my favourite composers for the piano.

At first glance, York Bowen’s 12 Studies for piano, op.46 (1919) would appear to come under the heading of ‘pedagogical’. The titles list the desired technical result – ‘Light Staccato Chords’, ‘For Finger Staccato’, ‘For Brilliancy in Passagework’ and so forth.  This seems rather dull but is not the full story. Throughout these Studies, there are moments of passion, delight and romance; they are constantly full of ingenuity, technical wizardry and imagination. We have echoes of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Debussian Impressionism in these pages. Bowen did play extracts from this collection in his concerts, and as such they appear more as ‘Concert Studies’ in the manner of Henselt and Liszt. I think that these Studies could, and probably should, be heard as a cycle, although clearly, they can be excerpted or played in small groups. My favourite is No.4 ‘For Forearm Rotation…’

Equally impressive are the Two Concert Studies. No.1 was published in 1917 but appears to have been composed some years earlier. The second was probably written around 1910.  Both works are capricious, happy go lucky and display ‘no-holds-barred’ virtuosity. Kevin Mandry, in his review of this disc for the British Music Society, wisely noted that these Studies are ‘Backward-looking and overtly Romantic in their idiom, there is nothing of the ‘English Musical Renaissance’ – or indeed most other 20th century musical movements…’ He adduces that this may the reason that Bowen has ‘fallen between the cracks in the repertoire.’ That, said, I just fell in love with these two brilliant Concert Studies which are devoid of pedantry. They surely deserve a place in the recital room.

The booklet is superb. The front cover reproduces the evocative Piccadilly Circus by George Hyde Pownall (1876-1932), painted before the Great War and featuring the rapidly burgeoning motor car. The notes, by Francis Pott, include a critical biography of the composer, as well as a contextualisation of his music within the 20th century. Detailed descriptive notes are given for each work and subdivision. They reward reading before listening. All this is the more remarkable as there are precious few sources of biographical and analytical information available for the life and work of York Bowen. The honourable exception is Monica Watson’s York Bowen: A Centenary Tribute (London, Thames, 1984). The York Bowen webpage which once showed so much promise wilted around 2010, although it is still available.

Nicolas Namoradze’s ‘CV’ is included. The booklet is printed in English, French and German. There are a couple of photos of York Bowen and one of the present soloist.

This is a most welcome new CD capturing four works which do not appear to have been recorded in full elsewhere. The playing throughout is masterful. I can only hope that Nicolas Namoradze and Hyperion have plans to issue more of York Bowen’s remarkable piano music. Looking at the catalogues, there are certainly many more pieces that would seem to demand revival.

John France

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