Before starting this review I have an interest to declare.
I am a long-standing member of the British Music Society (founded in
1977), the editor of its quarterly newsletter and, as editor, am an
ex officio member of the Society's Executive.
This is the eleventh BMS CD and has been steered
through from the original germ to finished product, by the BMS's one-time
Chairman and now Recording Manager, John Talbot. John has played an
estimable role in the renaissance of British music. You may well know
his name as the pianist in the Chandos recording of the Moeran Violin
Sonata. It was John who was in large and indispensable part the true
maker of the Moeran centenary celebrations. Later he steered the Maggini
Quartet into their Moeran quartets recording with Naxos.
Bowen was yet another of the generation of composers whose reputation
was laid waste by the Great War. Joseph Holbrooke is in the same benighted
category although at least he has a handful of Marco Polo discs to carry
his banner high. Others were not so lucky (quite apart from those who
were killed like George Butterworth and Cecil Coles). Reputations virtually
erased include the Birmingham-born composer, William Fenney.
Bowen's two surviving string quartets date from just
after the War years. The first quartet seems not to have survived. The
Second was dedicated to the Philharmonic Quartet (1915-1924) an ensemble
that numbered Eugene Goossens as second violin. The quartet encloses
a contemplative movement between an impetuous Allegro assai that for
me touches on streams we now associate with Korngold and with Moeran
and a Presto finale with jig patterning, some Tchaikovskian pizzicato
and the same exultant urgency we associate with early Frank Bridge before
the wormwood closed in. Bowen conjures in the finale an intensely original
hailstorm of high-lying lyrical figuration. This is a superbly rounded
and confident work in which the music bowls yearning along; very impressive.
My natural inclination was to try to place much of this work in a Continental
milieu. Korngold's, Schoeck's and Weigl's string quartets are natural
The Third Quartet gives up its secrets a shade less
readily. Its surface attractions are not as immediate as its predecessor.
There are Moeran-like hints (3.12 tr. 4) in the wistful but flowing
allegro moderato. After an even more introspective poco lento
the allegro assai finale bursts in with the jig-like Dumky
character of the Bax First Quartet laced with a touch of music-hall.
This contrasts with densely rapturous Howells-like episodes - lithely
racing and ecstatic.
Twelve years on and we come to the Phantasy-Quintet.
The quartet writing is far more subtle. This is a haunting little work
evoking kindly ghosts and mellifluous elegies. The hushed shivering
start echoes the Fenlands' mystery of Bowen's Horn Quintet of five years
previously. From 7.20 onwards the music displays ardour and determination
adorably underpinned by the deep Mozartian serenading of the bass clarinet.
The last several minutes seem to be a regretful farewell whether by
Bowen or to someone else I do not know but the impression is very strong.
It is much to the credit of the excellent Archaeus
that they have recorded for Lorelt a selection of string quartets by
Amy Beach, Ethel Smyth and Susan Spain-Dunk. This will join their other
quartet recordings: Salzedo, Keal and Roditi.
The present BMS recording is a compellingly desirable
addition to the shelves of those who, a couple of year ago, bought the
Society's British cello sonatas disc - a CD playing for well over 80
minutes. Not for the Society or John Talbot a disc with all the usual
suspects. On the contrary everything was (as here) new to disc. Those
cello sonatas are by Ernest Walker, York Bowen and John Foulds. The
Foulds, for me, made the CD an essential buy. The crusading artists
are Jo Cole (cello) and John Talbot (piano).
The engineering in the present case is in the tried
and true hands of Mike Skeet who delivers a sound that is both bold
and subtle. The production is by John Talbot who also wrote the liner
There is no plethora of Bowen CDs. If you can still
trace it there is Marie-Catherine Girod's compelling complete Bowen
Preludes (24 in all the major and minor keys - a sequence eulogised
by Sorabji). This is on the Opès 3D French label issued circa
1992. Hyperion have a selection of the piano music from Stephen Hough
- and extremely well thought of it is too. Quite recently Dutton's Epoch
label issued CDLX 7115 with the Horn Quintet, Rhapsody Trio
and Trio in Three Movements played by the Endymion Ensemble.
This features Philip Fowke.
This clutch of Bowen recordings is a pitifully small
handful and I hope it will expand. There are still plenty of Bowen world
premiere recordings to be made. The four piano concertos ought really
to stand a chance in Hyperion's 'romantic piano concerto' series. I
wonder if ASV could be interested in recording the two string concertos
- one each for violin (premiered by Marjorie Hayward - not Howard as
the liner notes have it - at the Queens Hall Proms in 1920) and viola
(given by Tertis at the RPS concerts in London and recently revived).
There is at least one violin sonata and several viola sonatas. The Second
Symphony features on ClassicO.
What next from the BMS? A personal hope list would
include the piano music of William Fenney, Greville Cooke (his Cormorant
Crag is surely worth hearing) and Reginald Sacheverell Coke as well
as the two string quartets of Eugene Goossens. I rather hope that someone
will look at the chamber music of Joseph Holbrooke including the two
later violin sonatas - the Romantic from circa 1920 (a version
of the so-called Grasshopper violin concerto) and the sinuously
lyrical late 1920s Sonata-Orientale. I suppose it is too much
to hope that Holbrooke's two fantasy piano sonatas from the mid/late-1930s
might also be taken up?
A compellingly desirable addition to any open-minded
collection. Bowen's chamber music is fresh and for most of the time
quite unlike that of his British contemporaries.
And a further view from Lewis Foreman
York Bowen has been one of those British composers
largely active before the war whom enthusiasts have long wanted to explore,
but apart from a number of sonatas and suites, notably for wind instruments,
and a distinguished corpus of piano music, his music has failed to find
a champion on CD. While such things as the Cello Sonata (BMS 423CD)
and the Suite in Three Movements for piano duet (BMS cassette BMS 414)
issued by the British Music Society have reminded us of something of
what we have been missing, it was surely the revival of the piano music,
including the 24 preludes in all keys, first by Marie-Catherine Girod
in 1994 (on 3DCL 3D8012) and then Stephen Hough’s remarkable piano programme
for Hyperion (CDA 66838) that re-launched his music for today’s CD audience.
Now there seems to be a rush to get on the bandwagon, with a fine Dutton
chamber CD and the now issued ClassicO recording of the Second Symphony.
This pioneering BMS programme fills gaps in our knowledge
of Bowen with the string quartets (the first quartet appears to be lost),
substantial works which for reasons I cannot completely explain are
unknown. They are coupled with the Phantasy-Quintet for the unusual
combination of bass clarinet and string quartet which some readers may
remember being played at the Royal Academy of Music in a Bowen Centenary
concert in 1984. This is all immensely well-made music, rewarding for
both players and listeners, and despite the Second Quartet being a Carnegie
Competition winner in 1922, all three pieces have only enjoyed literally
one or two performances in seventy or eighty years. Indeed, the performance
of the third quartet recorded here may well be a world premiere.
It seems to me the plum is undoubtedly the atmospheric
Bass-clarinet Quintet, an ensemble which Bowen uses with great sympathy
and invention. This is very much a Cobbett-style fantasy (or phantasie),
a continuous arch of nearly a quarter hour duration encompassing a variety
of tempi and moods. The outgoing Third Quartet, with its quasi-folk-like
materials - slow and atmospheric in the first and slow movements, all
dancing open-air in the finale, is good too. Both quartets have finales
in which Bowen uses pizzicato with fine throw-away effect, and the more
serious intent of the Second Quartet is lightened by its finale, one
of those 1920s movements which seems on the verge of turning into scherzando
light music, surely something to do with Bowen’s Academy training where
his fellow students had been Eric Coates and Montague Phillips. But
otherwise, in a period of striking individualists it is difficult to
pick any passage, as one could with Walton or Vaughan Williams, and
say it is definitively by Bowen.
Nevertheless enjoyable scores, and the players’ bold,
thrusting performances present the music with conviction.
And a further view from Michael Bryant with particular emphasis on
the bass clarinet work (with acknowledgement to Clarinet and Saxophone).
This is the first recording of the Phantasy Quintet.
It has been rarely heard and remains unpublished. It was written between
about 1933 and 1936. We know that the composer was living at the address
in Finchley Road, London NW8, between these dates. I am speculating
somewhat, but the bass clarinet (and saxophone) specialist Walter Lear
was possibly the first to play the work and a recording of his medium
wave Third Programme broadcast has been preserved among the composer’s
collection of tapes, now in the Royal Academy of Music Library. It has
also been broadcast by Ian Mitchell and played by Sarah Watts at the
RAM in about 1999. Dennis Smiley has played it in the USA.
This fine work is in one movement with several sections
and changes in tempo. Its form and the title Phantasy derive
from the competitions initiated in 1905 by Walter Cobbett, the managing
director of the Scandinavian Belting Company, who was also an enthusiastic
violinist and played at the South Place Sunday Concerts. He also edited
and commissioned contributions for his enduring monument, Cobbett’s
Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929). Over forty works received
prizes under the auspices of this competition. In 1905 the list headed
by William Hurlstone and Frank Bridge. The Phantasy Quintet begins
and ends calmly and quietly, but gives the bass clarinet an uncompromising
and often high flying line almost throughout. The predominant mood is
one of ineffable but disturbed sadness and the effect is as spellbinding
as Martha Schweitzer’s remarkable arrangement of Schoenberg’s Verklärte
Nacht for seven winds; (wind quintet, cor anglais and bass clarinet).
Martha Schweitzer is first bassoonist in the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra).
The sleeve notes quote a remark by Jonathan Frank (Musical Opinion,
July 1957) that ‘this is surely the only work for solo bass clarinet
in existence’. This might have been true if applied to British music.
When Walter Lear recorded a movement to demonstrate the bass clarinet
for HMV’s Guide to the Instruments of thc Orchestra in the 1940s he
chose the Elégie for cello and piano by Fauré. By now,
the list of chamber music for bass clarinet is very long indeed. A useful
list can be found at: http://www.newmusicorg/bassbib.html notwithstanding,
the Phantasy Quintet was predated by Janacek’s Mladí (written
in 1924 and played at the Wigmore Hall, without programme notes or publicity,
during the general strike on 6th May 1926) and Schoeck’s Sonata Op 41
(1927-8). It hardly needs to be said that the repertoire for bass clarinet
has been much increased as a result of activities of Harry Sparnaay
and Josef Horak. Quintets for bass clarinet and string quartet have
been written by Barry Anderson, Jan Bartos, Giacomo Bellucci, Frits
Belis, Jim Fox, Ernst Hess, Tristan Keuris and Manfred Nedbal among
Timothy Lines studied at the Royal College of Music
where he is now Professor of Clarinet. He has played with the London
Sinfonietta, London Winds and the Nash Ensemble. He can be heard, with
Colin Lawson and Michael Harris, playng basset horn trios by Mozart
and Anton Stadler on a new compact disc (ASV CD GAU 246). The compact
disc of music by York Bowen was made by Mike Skeet, who was John Denman’s
recording engineer on the British and Ensemble Music Labels (BML 002,
BML 009 and EML 008) and also at John Denman’s recordings of all of
Spohr’s Clarinet Concertos at Watford Town Hall in 1994 and 1996 (Carlton).
This is a most welcome issue and a major milestone
for the bass clarinet. It includes two string quartets by York Bowen.
I cannot recommend it too highly.
Mr Bryant’s review appears with acknowledgement to the
author and to Clarinet and Saxophone. It appeared in the Summer
2002 edition of Clarinet and Saxophone.
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