York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Symphony No. 1 in G, Op. 4 (1902) (première recording) [29:58]
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 31 (1909) [43:12]
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 10-11 October 2010, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN 10670 [73:23]

York Bowen’s music has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, at least on disc, thanks to the efforts of enterprising independent labels such as Chandos, Dutton and Hyperion. This important issue brings us the first-ever recording of his First Symphony and restores the Second Symphony to the catalogue.

The First Symphony was penned while Bowen, then aged eighteen, was still a student at the Royal Academy of Music. It appears that the work had to wait until 2010 for its long-delayed first performance when it was at last revealed thanks to the enterprise of the English Music Festival. Cast in three movements and scored for a moderately sized orchestra it makes an extremely pleasing impression. The first movement is full of charm and ease – and precocious confidence – and the music is most attractive, not least the lovely, graceful second subject, (first heard at 2:15). Throughout the movement the scoring is transparent and commendably light; indeed, this is a feature of the whole work. In his excellent notes Robert Matthew-Walker refers to “a natural warmth of direct expression” and I’d say that’s particularly true of the second movement. This opens with a beguiling theme on the clarinet and the whole movement just seems to sing from start to finish. The finale is lively and engaging; its opening material sounds scherzo-like. Later (at around 4:40 and again at 8:58) there’s a brief passage that’s so reminiscent of Schumann that it sounds almost like a direct quote.

This symphony may not be, perhaps, a work to set the world alight but it’s charming and very skilfully fashioned and much too enjoyable to languish unplayed on a library shelf somewhere. Sir Andrew Davis and the excellent BBC Philharmonic make the best possible case for it.

Seven years separate the two symphonies and it would appear that this period of time saw a step-change in Bowen’s compositional skills and confidence. The First Symphony was assured but its successor is assertive, especially in the first and last of its four movements. The scoring is much more expansive in the later work, including a very resourceful and effective harp part and a six-strong horn section – Bowen played the horn, as well as the viola, to professional standard as well as being a prodigiously talented pianist.

The first movement of the Second lasts only about a minute longer than the corresponding movement of the First but it feels more expansive and ambitious. Bowen seems to me to handle his material with confidence and he scores the music effectively and, indeed, with some flair. There’s an urgency and power in the writing that wasn’t present in the previous symphony and Bowen’s readiness to use the brass section is especially noticeable - arguably the brass writing is a bit over-enthusiastic at times.

The second movement starts with a ripe horn solo – how Bowen must have enjoyed allocating the melody to his own instrument! – underpinned by what Robert Matthew-Walker rightly calls “a richly upholstered texture”. It’s an impressive movement, containing a couple of passionate, though not overwrought climaxes. My ear was caught particularly by Bowen’s evocative writing for the harp. The scherzo, which comes next, is deft and light – one imagines an early twentieth-century Mendelssohn. The music is expertly scored – note the effective and rather unusual writing for the contrabassoon. The entire movement is a delight, right up to the delicate final pay-off. The finale is sweeping and confident. Again, Bowen’s scoring, if somewhat on the full side at times, is most interesting and resourceful and the melodic impulse of the music is strong, as has been the case throughout the symphony. The movement is given an ardent performance by Davis and the BBC Philharmonic, who play with great conviction but, to be honest, that statement is equally applicable to the entire performance.

The Second Symphony has been recorded before, by Douglas Bostock (review). His version, through which I first got to know the piece, is a good one but it’s no longer available, I believe, and it was not included in the recent boxed set that contained many of Bostock’s recordings of English music (review). In any case, the coupling of the First Symphony on this new Chandos is a more logical one and this, plus the quality of Sir Andrew Davis’s performance, would make it a clear first choice anyway. I learned from Brian Wilson’s review of the download version of this release that Chandos originally planned to invite the late Vernon Handley to conduct these recordings and that after his death Rumon Gamba was mooted as a replacement. But while I’m sure either of those conductors would have done Bowen’s music full justice by no stretch of the imagination should Sir Andrew Davis be thought of as a third choice. He conducts with great belief in the scores, both of which he invests with life, energy and a strong lyrical impulse. His contribution to this release is absolutely first class and further enhances his reputation as a formidable champion of British music.

I’m sure Sir Andrew would be quick to acknowledge the superb, responsive and committed playing by the BBC Philharmonic. So assured is their playing that one might think these were repertoire pieces. They’re very far from that and they’re never likely to be. My advice to admirers of York Bowen’s music and, indeed, to anyone interested in British music of the twentieth century, would be to snap up this excellent release without delay. These symphonies may not quite rank with the great symphonies by Elgar, Vaughan Williams or Walton but they have a great deal to offer and will reward careful listening.

The Chandos recordings are in the finest traditions of the house and, as I’ve already indicated, the booklet notes are first class.

John Quinn

Anyone interested in British music of the twentieth century should snap up this excellent release without delay.