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Bowen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Davis, BBC Philharmonic

Bowen / Bbcp / Davis
Release Date: 05/31/2011 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 10670   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  York Bowen
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BOWEN Symphonies: No. 1; No. 2 Andrew Davis, cond; BBC PO CHANDOS 10670 (73: 23)

York Bowen’s First Symphony is a curious work, almost an anti-symphony by contemporary terms: a pair of lightly dancing if lengthy scherzos, strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky (and occasionally Sullivan), surrounding a fervent larghetto whose treatment at one point offers its songful main theme on the strings, while the winds and brass take turns laughing at it. The work’s Read more origin in Bowen’s student years (age 18) is understandable, as no professional British composer could have hoped for such a composition to be accepted and performed by a professional ensemble of the time. The symphony’s structural coherence might well owe something to the friendly hand of Bowen’s composition professor, Frederick Corder, but its smiling wit is a quality that would surface repeatedly in his later works.

The Symphony No. 2 appeared seven years later. It is more conventional in its treatment of form, while the thematic and harmonic elements bear the strong influence of Tchaikovsky (especially his Second and Fifth symphonies), Debussy, Rachmaninoff (particularly his Second Symphony), and Dukas. It’s a diffuse if sometimes pleasant work, more convincing in its moments than in its entirety, with a fair amount of sequential padding in place of development, and a fair amount of pose-striking that doesn’t come off. The slow movement is the best, an imaginative thing of kaleidoscopic moods instead of the usual monothematic focus. The rest is a matter of waiting impatiently for the good bits.

I’ve found Andrew Davis’s conducting inconsistent in the past. He can be exciting, or as in the First Symphony here, emotionally withdrawn, the cuffs well in place, focusing on clarity and exquisite balance. Much remains to enjoy using that approach in this pair of works, but there’s far more passion and energy to be mined—for example, the First Symphony’s allegro con brio finale canters at about 120 bpm when it should gallop, while the lyrical slow movement is held off at arm’s length, with little of the poetry in its phrasing that its ardent theme and treatment would seem to call for. The Second receives a far more enthusiastic treatment, thankfully so, as it requires that much to make any effect, at all.

There’s no recorded competition in the First Symphony—indeed, this is listed as its album premiere. The Symphony No. 2 has been issued by the Royal Northern College of Music SO (Classico 404), though it simply isn’t up to the level of the BBC Philharmonic, despite Douglas Bostock’s drive.

The liner notes are hagiographic, at times embarrassingly so. “As a pianist, his [Bowen’s] recordings reveal a technique which knew no peer … .” A shame such laggards as Rachmaninoff, Hoffmann, Godowsky, Paderewski, Backhaus, Moisewitsch, the Lhevinnes, Horowitz, and others simply didn’t realize his technique was their superior. Would have saved a lot of time and effort if they’d all gone into retail, really.

Engineering is lifelike, effectively balanced, and close. I wish I could be more exited about the Second Symphony, but it’s the First that’s far more interesting. Hopefully, we’ll get a reading at some point where the sense of engagement matches the work’s own high spirits, but in the meantime, this will certainly do.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

York Bowen's Symphony No. 1, written in 1902 at the age of 18 is a remarkably assured, elegant piece subtly endowed with stylistic trappings of the 17th to 18th centuries. In the opening movement, melodic turns of phrase, cadential gestures and ornaments of an earlier era mingle with occasional late-romantic harmonies and the sound of a modern orchestra giving the music an overall effect similar to 20th century neo-classic orchestrations of Baroque and Classical era works, such as Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances. Of a gentle nature, the music impresses with its lyrical, polished refinement and seems to stem more from Elgar's romanticism than Vaughan Williams' modal expressions.

The Symphony No. 2 from 1909 is a larger scaled, more dramatic work with many effective moments and gorgeous orchestration, particularly the brass writing. The score glows with beautiful horn harmonies and an opulent richness of texture not unlike the orchestral music of Bowen's classmate Arnold Bax. The dramatic opening movement is attention getting. The slow movement contains a marvelous effect, achieved by richly divided strings, of suddenly opening up new vistas in sound and the Scherzo has a magical, glittering 'Mendelssohn meets the Firebird' quality.

The BBC Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis play with expression and beauty of tone in the many woodwind, brass and violin solos. The effect is one of genuine enthusiasm and a sense of new discovery. Chandos sound quality is excellent throughout the entire range of instruments and it is a delight to actually feel as well as hear the bass drum and the contra bassoon's rich deep amber tones. This music is strongly recommended to anyone who loves late-romantic and early 20th century symphonic works as well as English music of the Elgar, Bax and Bantock tradition.

- Greg La Traille, ArkivMusic.com
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in G major, Op. 4 by York Bowen
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1902; England 
Symphony no 2 in E minor, Op. 31 by York Bowen
Conductor:  Sir Andrew Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1909; England 

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