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GP637 - BOWEN, Y.: 24 Preludes / Suite Mignonne / Berceuse (Ortiz)
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York Bowen (1884–1961)
Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 102 • Berceuse, Op. 83 • Barcarolle from Suite No. 2 in G major, Op
. 30 • Suite Mignonne, Op. 39

 

Described by Saint-Saëns as ‘the most remarkable of the young British composers’, York Bowen was widely known as a pianist and as a composer, his fame reaching its zenith in the years immediately preceding the First World War. The youngest of three sons, he was born on 22 February 1884 at Crouch Hill, London. His mother, an accomplished musician, taught him piano and harmony and by the age of eight he was studying at the Blackheath Conservatoire. In 1898 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, studying piano with Tobias Matthay and composition with Frederick Corder until 1905. A gifted student, he won many prizes for piano and composition, including the Worshipful Company of Musicians’ Medal. Bowen was appointed Professor at the RAM in 1909, a post he held for the next fifty years. With regular performances at the Queen’s Hall and later at the Royal Albert Hall, his piano playing received critical acclaim for its technical and artistic excellence. In addition to his successful career as a solo (virtuoso) pianist, he formed celebrated duos with the great viola player Lionel Tertis and the pianist Harry Isaacs. Active as a musician to the last, Bowen died suddenly at his home in Hampstead at the age of 77 on 23 November 1961.

In a career which spanned some sixty years, Bowen was a prolific composer, writing over 160 works with opus numbers and several more which he left uncatalogued. Among his large-scale pieces are four symphonies and four piano concertos, the first of which he was invited to play at the Proms under Henry Wood. Other orchestral works include concertos for violin, viola and horn (given their premières by Marjorie Hayward, Lionel Tertis and Dennis Brain, respectively) and tone-poems such as The Lament of Tasso, first performed by Sir Henry Wood in August 1903. His proficiency on many orchestral instruments, notably horn and viola, served him well in his orchestral writing. Within his corpus of chamber music there are string quartets and piano trios, as well as a horn quintet and bass clarinet quintet. He wrote six piano sonatas dating from 1900 to 1961, together with sonatas for clarinet, flute, oboe, recorder, horn, violin, viola and cello. Influenced by the mastery of Tertis’s playing, Bowen did much to extend the repertoire of the viola (in addition to the aforementioned concerto and sonata, he also wrote a Fantasy for viola and a quartet for four violas). The piano, however, dominated his output to an exceptional degree for a twentieth-century British composer and his strikingly idiomatic writing for the instrument earned him the sobriquet of ‘the English Rachmaninov’.

Bowen’s Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 102, belongs to a rich tradition of works which cover all the major and minor keys of the scale, perhaps the most celebrated examples of which are those by Bach, Chopin, Alkan, Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. Following the ascending key scheme adopted by Bach in both books of his Well- Tempered Clavier, Bowen’s preludes progress, chromatically, from C major up to B minor. With the exception of the finale, he generates a single mood in each prelude, and there is never any suggestion of the group forming an interrelated, overarching cycle. These Twenty-Four Preludes are the greatest of Bowen’s numerous character pieces for piano and provide something of a conspectus of his pianistic technique. They are dedicated to the composer, pianist and critic Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, who, in his book Mi contra fa, referred to them as ‘the finest English piano music written in our time’, going on to assert that ‘[Bowen] is master of every kind of piano writing, which, great artist that he is, he uses not to the ends of trumpery and empty virtuoso affichange, but to the purposes of the powerful brilliant glowing and rich expression of a very individual beautiful and interesting musical thought’. Bowen began composing the Twenty-Four Preludes a few years before the outbreak of World War II, but they were not published until 1950.

Richly expressive, scrupulously polished and directly communicative, each prelude is a concise study, generally in the form of an initial statement of a clearly defined theme which is then repeated with subtle harmonic changes. Bowen contrasts virtuoso and fiery outbursts with delicate, more reflective utterances. For example, the exuberant first prelude, in C major, which, with its brilliant concluding passage, makes a suitably impressive curtain-raiser for the set, is succeeded by a gently lilting piece, in C minor, whose lyrical theme is situated in the central register with accompaniment on either side of it. Some of the composer’s most memorable invention may be found in the strongly atmospheric seventh prelude, in E flat major, and in the coolly expressive thirteenth in G flat major. Also notable is the capricious tenth prelude in E minor, whose thematic material deftly juxtaposes two contrasting elements, the first of which is a finely-spun, cascading idea, whilst the second is a weighty chordal motif. Certain preludes have the feel of a sombre processional, such as the dark-hued eighth, in E flat minor, and the insouciant sixteenth, in G minor, whose unsettling, strangely ethereal concluding bars echo a similarly haunting effect at the close of the tenth prelude. Balancing these funereal utterances are several stormy, bravura statements, such as the restless and wide-ranging fourth prelude in C sharp minor, the impassioned eighteenth in G sharp minor and the terse and vigorous twentieth in A minor, as well as the ferocious twenty-second in B flat minor, which is topped off with an especially barbarous ending. Recognizing that a substantial statement would be necessary to round off the set effectively, Bowen reserves some of his most compelling ideas for the concluding prelude in B minor. Uniquely within the set, this finale encompasses a range of moods: the subdued, introverted opening section gradually gains in intensity and builds to a fervent climax, before falling back into the initial material’s wistful musing. With the dramatic intensity of a tone poem, the closing twenty-fourth prelude provides a satisfying sense of culmination to a work which may be regarded as the crowning achievement of Bowen’s solo piano output.

A characteristically polished miniature, the Berceuse in D major, Op. 83 was composed in 1928. In the spirit of Chopin’s lyrical style, it has a quasi-improvisatory eloquence and ranks among Bowen’s most intimate scores. The fluency of the principal theme, together with its filigree decoration, is wholly representative of the composer, as are some unexpected harmonic shifts.

Bowen’s Second Suite for piano in G major, Op. 30 is thought to have been completed around 1910. The third of four movements, entitled Barcarolle, is deceptively simple in the initial presentation of its gentle, lilting theme. As it unfolds, an increasingly adventurous approach to both harmony and pedal markings serves to open up some shadowy expressive regions before the return of the innocent-sounding opening material. There is an exquisitely refined conclusion, pellucid and hushed.

Dating from 1915, the Suite Mignonne, Op. 39, is the fourth of Bowen’s five suites for solo piano. All three of its short movements are distinguished by their sophistication and require the lightest and most delicate of touches from the player. A graceful, flowing Prelude is followed by a Valse in D flat major, which at once recalls the standard light music of the period, and at the same time transcends it by virtue of the composer’s inherent elegance and taste. The concluding Moto perpetuo is a brilliant toccata-like study. Rarely rising above the level of a whisper, it has an airy, will-o’- the-wisp quality. The charming concluding gesture is typically adroit.


Paul Conway


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