Saturday, 14 February 2009

York Bowen: Fantasia in G minor for Organ Op.136

The organ works of York Bowen are few and far between. Apart from the present piece I know that there is a Melody in G minor and a transcription of the Somerset Suite (a desideratum for me in its orchestral incarnation).
The Fantasia was composed in 1949 and was duly published by Novello in 1952. It is quite clear to even the casual listener that this work would have been regarded as being somewhat retro when given its first performance at All Souls Langham Place in June 1951. It was a part of an impressive organ recital delivered by Arnold Richardson, the borough organist of Wolverhampton. It was the fourth in a series of recitals for the Festival of Britain celebrations.
Bowen’s Fantasia was played back to back with Elisabeth Lutyens’s 1948 Suite. The Times reviewer felt that although these two works are “only separated in date by a year, [the two works] are poles apart in spirit, the one proving as fleshy in its romanticism as the other was like bare (but not dry) bones in its austerity”. The Times Monday, June 18, 1951 p.2.
The Musical Times critic considered that “Arnold Richardson gallantly tackled a programme containing three first performances.” He considered that Bowen’s Fantasia in G minor “proved [to be] a rich and satisfying work…it is perhaps a little too right-handed for the organ (though did not Wagner make the same complaint of Chopin's piano writing?), but it is a specimen that one would like to have in print”. The Musical Times October 1951, p.460

A year or so later, when the score was published, the Musical Times noted: “When a well-known piano professor and composer embarks upon a full-length Fantasia for organ he should be assured of an attentive hearing". He wrote that “it came in a programme where its full-blooded romanticism made a pleasing contrast to the neo-baroque of Arnell and the tortured trickle of Elisabeth Lutyens. It has indeed a faintly dated air, less from its style than from its thought, though much of the writing is frankly chordal and tends to sound dull on the organ. The subject-matter is not strong, and there is far too much of it, so that the work as a whole seems diffuse. The Musical Times October 1952 p. 453.
Apparently York Bowen responded to this review by saying "How disgusting! Not because they don't like my piece but because they can take that Lutyens thing seriously! It is just dreadful to find this and I refuse to take any notice of ordinary newspaper critics -and no wonder! “ I don’t think my organ piece is ‘romantic’ at all…it is quite severe in parts! Silly asses!”

Listening to this work more than half a century later, it is certainly possible to see both points of view. There is definitely much about this music that is ‘romantic’ and certainly even the briefest of glances at the score show that it is perhaps more ‘pianistic’ than specifically devised for the organ. Certainly Bowen makes considerable use of octaves in the right hand, arpeggios and chromatic scale figurations. But it does work. And there are many passages where the added- note harmony and slippery tonality give lie to any suggestion that this is souped-up Chopin or Liszt.
For the record, the other works in Arnold Richardson's impressive programme were Richard Arnell’s Second Sonata, Josef Holbrooke’s ‘outsize’ Bayreuthian G minor Prelude and Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘gentle ‘Rhosymedre’ Prelude.

York Bowen's Fantasia can be heard on: Langham Place Fantasia Priory PRCD817 Gerald Brooks on the organ of All Soul’s Langham Place. [with works by Ives, Hollins, Martin, Bliss, Tredinnick, Coates etc.]

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