Notes and Editorial Reviews
York Bowen's music has slowly gained attention on disc, principally through a superb 1995 recital by Stephen Hough for Hyperion and several releases on Chandos featuring Joop Celis. A hard-to-find release on the 3D Classics label with Marie-Catherine Girod is worth seeking out, along with a Lyrita reissue with the composer at the piano, late in his long life but still strong and frisky.
To follow up Danny Driver's highly acclaimed Hyperion recording of Bowen's Third and Fourth piano concertos, the label has recruited the young pianist to set down the composer's six piano sonatas, all substantial works whose richly textured, harmonically lush, and utterly idiomatic keyboard writing evokes Rachmaninov and Medtner by way of
Delius, Bax, Ireland, and Scott, with a few Impressionist finishing touches and, arguably, a little Gershwin.
The playing is terrific. More than in Joop Celis' pioneering recording of the Sixth sonata, Driver's energy and intelligent sense of direction give palpable shape and dramatic contrast to the Finale alla toccata. If he doesn't quite dispatch the Fifth sonata first movement's rapid chords with Stephen Hough's impeccable accentuation and poise, his fluent lyricism fits the central movement's Andante semplice directive like a glove. However, the first three, previously unrecorded sonatas allow us to trace Bowen's stylistic development.
As the booklet notes astutely point out, the First sonata's opening movement bears traces of Grieg's own early Op. 7 sonata and a few patterns that seem awkwardly modeled after Chopin's B minor sonata first movement, while the second movement's short-breathed main thematic statement wouldn't be out of place within MacDowell's Woodland Sketches. Bowen is still finding his way in the Second sonata, although he's already leaning toward the fuller textures characterizing the mature, more harmonically complex style that begins to assert itself in the Third sonata.
No doubt that Driver's rock-solid technique and natural sympathy for Bowen's coruscating idiom is what the good folks at Hyperion had in mind for this fascinating and valuable release. While listeners new to Bowen first should investigate Hough's disc, with its balanced mix of larger and smaller works, this release surely will attract collectors who like to travel Romantic piano music's unjustly obscure byways.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
York Bowen's romantic era music has been undergoing a welcome resurgence of interest over the last decade or so. Major concertos and orchestral works have appeared on disc from
Lyrita, Dutton (
Piano Concertos 2 & 3) and Hyperion. At one time when Bax and Moeran were being recorded afresh and even re-recorded it seemed that revival was turning a blind and uncaring eye. Chandos have produced three masterly collections of the solo piano music from Joop Celis (CHAN10277; CHAN10410;
CHAN10506) to join many chamber music collections on
Hyperion and the
BMS label. Hyperion were in the early with the Bowen revival and their justly celebrated Hough collection (
Hyperion CDA66838) might be said to have brought about the renaissance. Bowen's own fragile 1959 mono LP of the some of the solo piano music has also been reissued on
Lyrita but its interest is primarily historical fascinating as it is. We should not forget Marie-Catherine Girod’s superb survey of the 24 Preludes on the long deleted label Opes-3D - well worth tracking down if you can. The
York Bowen website is worth a visit and you may also want to get hold of a copy of Monica Watson's "York Bowen - A Centenary Tribute" (Thames Publishing, 1984).
These six piano sonatas span the whole of his creative life from 1902 to the late 1950s. The
First Sonata is shot through with romantic spirit. There's a strenuous and adeptly expressed first movement recalling Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto followed by a Macdowell-sweet
Larghetto. The jauntily pastoral
Tempo di menuetto is matched up with a finale that represents a return to the initial and sometimes pearlescently lit, tempestuous initial
Allegro con fuoco. The
Second Sonata is a work of fleetly expressed emotions throwing out streamers of display towards Macdowell, Chopin - especially in the rather touching
Andante sostenuto - and Mendelssohn. The outer movements are emphatic and determined statements prone to poetic asides yet with the muscular rhythmic resolve of Saint-Saens. The
Third Sonata is from 1912 when the composer was still only 28. The perfect repose of the
Andante cantabile is remarkable and memorable although we are by now used to Bowen's predilection for crafting rising climactic statements out of even the most restful beginnings. As with all these performances one does not have to read between the lines to sense how deeply Danny Driver has absorbed this music which communicates with real fluency and complete engagement whether in rhetoric or in poetry. The outer movements have fire and floridly gritty romantic determination too.
Moving to the second CD we encounter three sonatas written after the Great War. Even so, Bowen maintains steady-state fidelity to the romantic ideal. There's no movement towards jazz, neo-classicism or popular culture. The three movements of the
Short Sonata which stands in the stead of a lost Fourth Sonata recall Cyril Scott and the folklorist composers such as Howells and Moeran. The slow-pulsed
Lento espressivo is also idyllic-pastoral but the lineage back to the Macdowell echoes of the first three sonatas is also present. This is music of glowing confidence. It’s deeply, deeply attractive. The playful
Presto scherzando for me points back towards the wonderful Scriabin Piano Concerto. The
Fifth Sonata of 1921 is again in three movements but is some five minutes longer than the
Short Sonata. There is a strong fragrance of the volatile and flammable qualities of Rachmaninov's opp. 23 and 32 Preludes. Francis Pott, in his notes, also points us towards echoes of the Lyapunov
Transcendental Etudes and of Bernard Stevens' Sonata of 1954. The
Sixth Sonata moves closer towards Medtner on the one hand and in the magical central movement towards Debussy. The swirling rush of prestidigitation that is the final Toccata provides a heady mélange of grandeur and panache.
Driver is already well and truly
au fait with the Bowen manner having recorded the Third and Fourth Piano Concertos for Hyperion on
CDA67659. Surely he will soon be commissioned to start recording the six piano concertos of Richard Sacheverell Coke - reputedly a Rachmaninov indebtee - before too long.
The set is compactly presented in a single width case with a booklet essay by composer Francis Pott whose music merits more recorded attention than it receives.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
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