About this Recording
8.571366 - BOWEN, Y.: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 / Phantasy-Quintet (Lines, Archaeus String Quartet)

York Bowen (1884–1961)
String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 • Phantasy-Quintet


The early musical career of York Bowen (1884–1961), which included the period of his greatest public success and recognition as a composer of outstanding promise and talent, encompassed the first two decades of the twentieth century. It was remarkable by any standards.

While he was still a student of piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, Bowen’s Symphonic Poem The Lament of Tasso was played in August 1903 at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert conducted by Sir Henry Wood; and in the 1904 Proms he played his own First Piano Concerto. Subsequent first performances of his music were equally notable for their performers: Hans Richter gave the Symphonic Fantasia in 1906, the year in which Bowen played his Second Piano Concerto at a Philharmonic Society concert; in 1908 he played his Third Piano Concerto at the Proms, and Lionel Tertis was soloist for his Viola Concerto at a Philharmonic concert; Fritz Kreisler, with the composer at the piano, played the Suite in Four Movements at a Queen’s Hall recital in 1910; Landon Ronald gave the Second Symphony at the Queen’s Hall in 1912; and at a Proms concert in 1920, Marjorie Howard gave the première of Bowen’s ‘strikingly effective’ Violin Concerto, conducted by the composer.

York Bowen’s two extant string quartets, here recorded, appear to have been written at about the same time as the Violin Concerto, judging by what is known of their respective dates. (The First String Quartet has not yet been traced, and may have been destroyed.)

The Second String Quartet, in D minor, was published in 1922 as the recipient of a Carnegie Trust Award. It is dedicated to the Philharmonic Quartet, which was founded in 1915 with, among its personnel, the composer and later conductor Eugene Goossens as second violinist. (The group disbanded in 1924, having given numerous concerts in London and elsewhere, but not before having attracted contemporary composers of developing stature such as Bowen and Goossens to write for it.) The Carnegie adjudicators’ report upon this work was succinct: ‘A well written, pleasing, and effective piece of music in three movements, presenting no undue difficulty’. This assessment may have been designed to attract performers and audiences, but in one respect was misleading: the work in fact presents considerable difficulty in execution, and was surely meant to, given Bowen’s predilection for virtuosity in both his compositional and pianistic styles.

In 1929, in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, Thomas Dunhill more accurately and comprehensively summed up what he knew of Bowen’s chamber music at that time: ‘York Bowen’s chamber music is predominantly brilliant in style. He may be described as a romanticist with sympathies in the direction of impressionism. His themes are in the main direct and diatonic, but he succeeds in clothing his subject matter in harmonies which give to the music the attributes of novelty and surprise. If these attributes are inclined to emphasize the mellifluous character of some of his ideas, which approach at times a somewhat sentimental type of expressiveness, his healthy, rhythmic vitality is a strong counterbalancing factor. […] In his flair for effect, and in his ability to juggle with his themes, he takes his place as a facile exponent of an essentially healthy and breezy phase in modern art’.

It is possible, indeed probable, that Dunhill did not know Bowen’s Third String Quartet, in G major, as it was not published during the composer’s lifetime and there is no known record of its first performance. These facts are puzzling, but perhaps may be explained by the fact that, in comparison with its predecessor, this work is more elusive in spirit, more intimate in feeling, and perhaps reveals a rarely displayed private side of the composer’s personality. The manuscript of the Third String Quartet, which displays in its writing for strings an easy, unselfconscious mastery of material, is dated September 1919.

Given the date of completion of the third quartet, and the date of publication of the second, it is open to conjecture that these two works were written almost concurrently i.e. towards the end of or just after the First World War, in which Bowen served in France as a horn player in the regimental band of the Scots Guard before being invalided home in 1916 with pneumonia.

Neither quartet presents any formal difficulty to the listener, and each displays its wares in clear cut, traditional style based on classical models. The first movements, following a sonata-form pattern, present an exposition of two contrasting main themes and a shorter subsidiary theme which, after repetition, leads to a developmental central section, followed by a tonally readjusted recapitulation of the first section and a conclusion. The second movements are each of a ternary (ABA) structure; and the Finales reveal again the sonata-form structure of the first movements. (NB All exposition repeats are observed in the performances on this recording, i.e. in the first and third movements of the two string quartets.)

The Phantasy-Quintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet may have been written in 1932, as this date is pencilled on the manuscript full score, though probably not by the composer. Little is known of its history: it would be fascinating to know why Bowen chose to write for this beautiful instrument, almost completely neglected in its full-scale solo capacity. (Was Jonathan Frank correct in declaring as he did in Musical Opinion in July 1957, that ‘this is surely the only work for solo bass clarinet in existence’?) At the time of this recording, the work was still unpublished, and there had been only two known performances, the more recent given by students of the Royal Academy at a lunchtime concert on 22 February 1984, the centenary of the composer’s birth.

The work clearly derives in structure from the Cobbett Phantasy Competitions which were initiated in 1905 to further the cause of British chamber music, and is in the usual one-movement form which in range attempts to encompass that of a full three- or four-movement sonata. Thus the first section, corresponding perhaps to the first movement of a sonata, presents two themes in a ternary arrangement; the middle section, which is introduced by a quasi-recitative passage for bass clarinet and followed by a linking passage featuring a lovingly crafted viola solo, corresponds to a second movement; and the third, a brilliantly driven Allegro con spirito, represents a finale. The whole piece, constructed with seamless skill, is rounded off with a sustained tranquillo coda which returns to the mood of nocturnal reverie of the opening bars.

John Talbot

Note: The designated opus number of the Third String Quartet was appropriated for the publication of Bowen’s Twelve Studies for piano, when the latter were published in 1919. The opus number 46(b) has been chosen for this first recording.

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