Tuesday, 29 June 2010

York Bowen : Piano Music Volume 4 on Chandos

York BOWEN (1884-1961) Piano Works - Volume 4 Partita, Op. 156 (1960) Suite Mignonne, Op. 39 (1915) Third Suite, Op. 38 (1915) Three Sketches, Op. 43 (1916) Sonatina, Op. 144 (1954) Three Novelettes, Op. 124 (1949) Polonaise in F sharp major, Op. 26 No. 2 (1906/07) A Whim, Op. 19 No. 2 (c.1910)
Joop Celis (piano) CHANDOS CHAN10593

When Chandos first began this series of York Bowen’s piano music back in 2005 I was both delighted and a little concerned. Until the last ten years there has been scant interest shown in Bowen’s music. The reasons for this are many, but probably devolve down to the critical anti-romantic mood of the nineteen fifties and sixties. Coupled to this, is the perceived wisdom that Bowen’s musical style did not develop - regarded as a fault - and that he was simply an English pastiche Rachmaninov led to this once ubiquitous composer being ignored. For many years he was recalled simply as a teacher and more pertinently as a piano examiner with the Associated Board – who was believed to have composed a few piano pieces.
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The reality is far more complex. For one thing the catalogue of piano pieces alone runs to many pages of text. In some ways it is probably too large, and has led to a situation where no-one really knows the entire run of works. Secondly although there is a definite strand of naked romanticism in Bowen’s music, this is not the whole story – for example listen to the Partita – a late work which nods to an earlier school of keyboard writing - on this present disc.
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But back to my concern. I was really worried that this series of piano works by Bowen would become stalled – I guess that we all have seen examples of where a cycle has been promised and where after a couple of issues it seems to be abandoned. However, this is volume four of the present series and although it has come out at roughly one CD a year, it has done so consistently. I know that there is plenty more music by Bowen to ‘have a go at’ - I just hope that this series continues, for I doubt that any other pianist or CD company would attempt a rival ‘complete’ version! This present disc divides conveniently into two parts – those early works from the first three decades of the twentieth-century and those written after the Second World War. They are not in chronologically sequence on this disc: I imagine they are presented in the order given to make a satisfactory programme. However, I would counsel against through-listening.
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The best place to start is the delightful Suite Mignonne Op. 39. This is usually regarded as the ‘fourth’ suite. It was written in 1915 and is really a piece of ‘light’ music. The Suite opens with a ‘Prelude’ that is actually very moving and beautiful. The middle movement ‘Valse’ is just about in the gift of an amateur and nods fairly and squarely to the world of Haydn Wood with its elegant and graceful mood. The final ‘Toccata’ is a miniature masterpiece – it is a ‘moto perpetuo’ and as such barely pauses for breath. It would be easy to scorn a work such as this for being superficial or light-weight, yet what Bowen has created here is a suite that is listenable, well laid out for the piano and quite simply gorgeous. I would then suggest hearing the Three Sketches Op.43 which was composed the year after the Suite Mignonne. These are not given poetic titles: there is no obvious attempt to word-paint in music. Yet, as the liner-notes point out, this is a set of three idyllic pieces that fully exploit the pastoral mood that was popular at that time, although there is no use of folk-song. Reflective in mood, they nod more to Fauré than to Rachmaninov, John Ireland or Arnold Bax.
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I have not heard A Whim before listening to this disk – although I have perused the music: it is certainly way beyond my Grade 6½! This was the second piece in Bowen’s Op.19 the other first being a ‘Nocturne’ and the last a ‘Humoresque’. It is a light, will o’ the wisp piece that surely enchants every listener who believes in fairies! It was composed in 1910.
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The earliest piece on this CD is the long Polonaise which dates from about 1906, when the composer was about 22 years old. It is fairly safe to assume that any piece that carries this title must be written with some sense of debt to Chopin, or at least to the Polish nation. This is a concert Polonaise and does not presume to use any traditional dance tunes. But as the liner-notes point out, it is a fine achievement: a large piece derived from a single stylised dance form. To be fair, there is little here that could not have written by a dozen competent composers: there is nothing that says ‘English’ music. That being said, it is an excellent piece – if it had been by Chopin it would have been heard a dozen times a week on the radio and in recital rooms.
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The last of the early pieces is the Third Suite Op.38 which was written about 1914 and was dedicated to Sir Frederick Corder. From the first few bars it is clear that this is an important and striking piece. On a first hearing the listener may wonder why this powerful work is called a ‘suite’ and not a ‘sonata’. The distinction is made by Robert Matthew-Walker in the sleeve-notes, and it is worth quoting. He writes that for Bowen ‘the difference was clearly delineated. This is exemplified most in the emotional tenor of those works: his sonatas (Bowen wrote six) are invariably more serious, at times overall more fugacious, compositions, whereas his whimsical and natural lightness of expression comes to the fore in his suites.’ Certainly in the present suite this thesis only seems to apply to a degree. The opening movement, although I guess not in strict sonata form, is big, gutsy and well structured. However the succeeding ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Scherzo’ are certainly in a ‘lighter’ less profound mould. There are a fair number of passages here that could be described as ‘cocktail bar’ music. And that is certainly not meant as a criticism - it is a part of the delight of Bowen’s music. This is even more apparent in the fourth movement, the ‘Valse-reverie’. This is quite definitely music to fall in love with – in both senses. The final ‘Toccata’ is a war-horse; not something for anything but nimble fingers. It brings the Suite to an impressive conclusion. The second tranche of pieces to explore belongs to the 15 years after the Second World War.
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The Three Novelettes are a pleasure to listen to. They were composed circa 1949 and dedicated to Marion Keyte-Perry who would appear to have been a dog-breeder! A Novelette is technically a short story or piece of fiction. Alas, there is no suggestion as to what the ‘literary’ text or plot is behind these pieces. The first and third are largely reflective in tone and explore a fundamentally romantic realm that is perhaps ‘retro’ for the date composed. The liner-notes point out that the second piece is ‘the sturdiest music here’. It is a ‘serious utterance’ - powerful and dramatic - that seems to inhabit the northern world of Sibelius. It could be regarded as being a little out of place with the two mood-pictures.
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The Sonatina is another of those works that belie the title. Aspiring pianists are brought up on the Sonatinas of Clementi, Kuhlau and Diabelli. However this owes more to the more technically demanding examples of that title by Maurice Ravel and John Ireland – without having their emotional depth or ‘profundity of expression’. This work was written in 1954. Matthew-Walker has noted that it requires a ‘finished and comprehensive technique’ to play. I love this work: I think it is the untroubled out of doors mood of the entire piece that appeals to me. It is not pastoral in any way, yet it surely suggests holidays by the sea or walks in the countryside. The middle movement is a little more reflective, but even here there is nothing to trouble the spirit. It is truly lovely music. The last movement is exciting, difficult and thoroughly enjoyable. It has a fine big tune that emerges from the predominant pianistic figurations and makes a great finish to this ‘short sonata’.
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The late Partita (1960) is possibly the most important work on this CD. The title suggests experimentation with baroque forms and styles of keyboard figuration. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Although Bowen has used the formal names typical of a ‘suite’ – prelude, gavotte, sarabande, minuet and gigue transmuted into a late-romantic style – this is most certainly not pastiche or retro. However there are occasional nods to the earlier age all done in a subtle manner. A perfect balance is struck. I have written elsewhere that from the first note to the last, this is a happy and fortuitous composition. Since first hearing this work many years ago, I have always noted the suggestion of the ‘salon’ about the ‘minuet’ and the ‘gigue’. Yet any suggestion that this is simply ephemera is rejected by the sheer artistry of the music and the competence required in playing it.
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There is almost no need for me to write that this is a fantastic CD. I have long been enthusiastic about virtually everything that I have heard from the pen of York Bowen. This CD will be a must for all enthusiasts of British piano music that has a late-romantic flavour to it. The playing by Joop Celis is, as with the other three volumes in this series, superb. York Bowen and his champion certainly deserve each other!
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With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

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