Bowen / Celis Release Date: 06/25/2013
Label:ChandosCatalog #: 10774
Spars Code: DDD Composer: York Bowen Performer: Joop Cells,
Joop Celis Number of Discs: 4
Recorded in: Stereo
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BOWEN Piano Sonatas Nos. 5 and 6. 24 Preludes. Rêverie. Nocturne. Ripples (A Short Sketch). Two Preludes. Fantasia. Two Intermezzos. Siciliano and Toccatina. Four Bagatelles. Evening Calm. Ballade No. 2. Three Songs Without Words. Three Preludes: Nos. 2 and 3. Short SonataRead more class="ARIAL12b">. Three Miniatures. Three Serious Dances. Toccata. Three Pieces. Partita. Suite Mignonne. Third Suite. Three Sketches. Sonatina. Three Novelettes. Polonaise. A Whim • Joop Celis (pn) • CHANDOS 10774 (4 CDs: 301:47)
This is a boxed set reissue of the four individual CDs recorded by Joop Celis between 2003 and 2009. There are many listeners, even among my fellow Fanfare critics, who simply don’t “get” York Bowen. They find the music busy, mostly tonal, but uninteresting. I feel differently, perhaps because I first heard his Phantasy for viola and piano on the radio program Saint Paul Sunday and fell in love with it. I also recognize the fact that one can still say a lot within conventional tonality. Perhaps the largely wholesale veering of modern composers, from the late 1980s on, back to tonality eventually propelled Bowen into the limelight. (I’d love to say back into the limelight, but the fact of the matter is that the limelight stopped shining on him shortly after World War I, and had mostly shone in England anyway.)
To try to encapsulate all of my feelings about this remarkable composer in one sentence, Bowen’s musical mind was both highly tuned to music as a natural means of discourse—he is one of those rare composers who, at least for me, really “speak” through their music—and sensitized towards its internal logic and harmonic interrelationships. To break that down a little more, Bowen used tonality as Dali used “realistic”-looking figures, to break new artistic ground (particularly, but not exclusively, in his writing for piano) while retaining the outward appearance of late romanticism. In other words, he continued to grow and change as an artist, and always had something new and interesting to say, but saw no reason to alter his basic nature. Many listeners (myself included) are not at all fond, for instance, of Stravinsky’s very late atonal phase, not because the music is not well written but because it is inauthentic. It doesn’t have the ring of truth about it, and I am nothing if not a seeker of musical truth.
A case in point, here, is the Piano Sonata No. 6 that opens CD 1 of this superb set. It was Bowen’s very last composition, written in 1961, and there is no way that it could stand comparison with the modern music of that time, yet the observant listener will hear numerous harmonic deviations and altered chords, used not for the sake of effect but to allow Bowen to open the door to his still fertile imagination. New musical ideas, hitherto unimagined even by him, absolutely bristle and explode in this sonata. It is, of course, bravura writing—Bowen was a piano virtuoso of the first order—but sheer difficulty is not the point of this piece, just as it was never the point of his earlier works that garnered high praise even from Camille Saint-Saëns. Bowen has so much to say that the music practically explodes from the keyboard, and it is an understatement to say that it is all interesting. It is riveting.
Following this late masterpiece, we are then presented with an earlier one, the 24 Preludes in all the major and minor keys, composed around 1938. The liner notes give us a fascinating story: “Shortly after their completion [Kaikhosru] Sorabji hired the Wigmore Hall one afternoon in order to hear the composer play them, with himself and the critic Clinton Gray Fisk as the sole audience.” Sorabji’s assessment of the set, as later (1947) published in his book Mi Contra Fa, was of “Inexhaustible pianistic invention, endlessly fascinating and imaginative harmonic subtlety and raffinement, a musical substance elevated and distinguished, a perfection and finely poised judgment….” I heartily concur. Here, too, Bowen’s later (post-1930) fascination, even obsession, with chromatic harmonic movement forms the basis for his preludes, but in his case the harmonic base does not merely underpin “conventional” melodic lines. On the contrary, it sounds as if the composer gave birth to harmony and top line simultaneously. Both move together, indivisible and with equal imagination. One could not imagine the top line without the chordal movement or vice-versa. In addition, Bowen’s preludes are highly varied in mood as well as in structure: no two are alike, and often we hear preludes that sound so different from the ones before or after that we are left stunned by Bowen’s richly inventive mind. The Rêverie that closes this disc, though lighter music, is by no means insubstantial.
CD 2 begins with Bowen’s Second Piano Sonata, written almost 40 years before the Sixth (1923). It is yet another good work, but almost genial and relaxed in comparison to the thorny, dramatic sonata that succeeded it. Yet there is no paucity of invention: note, for instance, how the opening theme becomes the motif of the second subject, not the first. This sonata also seems much closer in style as well as substance to some of Rachmaninoff’s works. Although not stated in the booklet, I can well imagine that Bowen knew of the Russian composer and probably admired him, even though Bowen’s music is far less sentimental in nature. The second movement, with its unusual, almost exotic harmonies, puts one in mind of Alkan, while the third is pure Bowen: uninhibited, bursting with ideas, almost as if he has too much to say and not enough time to say it in. Also note how, despite the numerous tempo shifts (Allegro con fuoco…Poco sostenuto…Poco accelerando…Tempo I…Più moderato, etc.), the thread of Bowen’s music never loses coherence or shape. The 1925 Nocturne that follows the sonata is genial, gently musing music, yet underscored with those piquant harmonies that always seemed to be at the base of every Bowen composition. “Ripples,” which may seem on the face of it almost a throwaway piece, still displays Bowen’s mastery of form; this is its world premiere recording.
If I had inexhaustible space, I could go on and on and on, extolling the virtues of nearly every piece here. Most of CD 2 consists of premiere recordings—in addition to Ripples, also the Two Preludes (originally marked as op. 100), the “Fantasia,” two intermezzos, Siciliano and Toccatina, the four Bagatelles, and Evening Calm—and each and every one of them shows a different side of this multi-faceted composer. Joop Celis proves himself a remarkable pianist, finding plenty of color and nuance in this very excellent music. CD 3 starts off with the massive and highly imaginative Ballade of 1930, the Short Sonata of 1922 and three Preludes from the late 1920s, but on this disc Celis also presents us with some incredible rarities, early Bowen pieces ranging from 1905 to 1916. Perhaps amazingly, there is nothing immature sounding about these works: they are as assured in their own style as the much older Debussy’s music was in the same time period. And yet, there is an unmistakable growth in the richness and complexity of Bowen’s later music, so there was some evolution as he aged. Particularly interesting, to me, were the Three Serious Dances, the first and third of which sound Russian and the second resembles somewhat the music of Erik Satie. Could Bowen have known of Satie? Or, probably closer to the truth, was he influenced by Debussy’s music that was influenced by Satie?
More treasures on CD 4: the superbly crafted yet whimsical Partita of 1960 (the “Gigue” of which sounds a bit like Alkan, with its odd chromaticism) and several previously unrecorded works ranging from the light A Whim (c.1910) to such mature works as the Sonatina (1954) and Three Novelettes, with a few stops in between (like the Suite Mignonne and Third Suite).
Celis’s pianism is remarkably dramatic as well as attentive to detail and mood, and if he does not quite match Stephen Hough’s somewhat more nuanced phrasing, he certainly understands the greatness of this music and presents it in that light. This boxed set includes Celis’s four individual albums in slim but sturdy cardboard sleeves and also all four booklets from the original single releases, which sell for $18.99 apiece in most online outlets, so its general retail price of around $45 is a considerable bargain.
British JewelsMay 21, 2016By bess holloway (Boulder, CO)See All My Reviews"I own Volume 3 of this set and reviewed it when it was available as a single disc. In that statement I said you know you have a winner when you select it repeatedly for listening enjoyment. Three years later, I'm still loving it! I can imagine that any of these recordings would please me as much. Whether you buy one disc or the set, you'll find Joop Celis is an outstanding musician who grasps the essence of York Bowen's musical mind."Report Abuse