Piano Sonata No.1 in B minor, Op.6
Piano Sonata No.2 in C sharp minor, Op.9
Piano Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op.12
Short Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.35/1
Piano Sonata No.5 in F minor, Op.72
Piano Sonata No.6 in B flat minor, Op.160
Danny Driver (piano)
Recorded 10 & 11 July and 16 & 17 August 2008 in Henry Wood Hall, London
CD No: HYPERION CDA67751/2 (2 CDs) Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes Reviewed: November 2009
York Bowen The Piano Sonatas/Danny Driver
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
The powerful surge at the opening of the B minor Sonata might suggest a fusion of Brahms and Rachmaninov, the second subject opening up a more recognisably English style; to emphasise the classical countenance of the first movement, the exposition is repeated. Thus begins a journey through the six pianos sonatas of Londoner (Edwin) York Bowen (1884-1961) played by one of his greatest champions, Danny Driver, who has previously recorded Bowen’s third and fourth concertos for Hyperion. The greatest argument in this First Sonata is to be found in the first movement; the middle two are, respectively, an attractive, balmy, nocturne-like Larghetto – sweet and atmospheric – and then an easygoing intermezzo. The finale, somewhat derivative of Chopin (his B minor Sonata), is maybe too genial to wrap things up conclusively, but it’s a fine and confident piece overall, and not just because its composer was in his late-teens at the time of composition.
The Chopin connection continues into the not-much-later C sharp minor Sonata, a lovely, rather drawing-room opening movement (one that develops weight along the way) followed by a prayer-like Andante (with shades of Mendelssohn) before the finale crashes in Rachmaninov-style and then yields to further pleasurable ‘song and dance’. Whatever the references, this is lovely music on its own terms. The D minor work (1912), finds Bowen now favouring compact outer movements surrounding a relatively lengthy slow one (private yet inviting), the structure linear and the piano-writing transparent, a stronger individual voice emerging. (The first three sonatas are recorded for the first time.)
Given that there are fifth and sixth piano sonatas in Bowen’s catalogue, we must now take the so-called Short Sonata (published in 1922) as the unofficial Number 4, the ‘real’ one unfortunately lost. Sharing the same key, C sharp minor, as Sonata No.2, the Fauré-like, rocking opening movement has particular appeal, the Lento that follows similarly spacious but more overtly heartfelt; the finale scampers joyously along with just a hint of mischief. The Fifth Sonata has claims to be the masterpiece here; music that seems utterly personal (despite the Scriabin tendencies), tempestuous and passionate and tempered by lovely lyrical writing; a big statement, the middle-movement Andante offering balm, the finale covering a wide stylistic ground. The Sixth Sonata (1961), Bowen’s last music, is only a few seconds longer than the Short Sonata, such concision making every note count, a tragic air hanging over the first movement, a gentle (if florid) nostalgia the second, and coruscation firing the finale – a composer in his late-70s going out with energy and devilry.
All this music here is played quite wonderfully by Danny Driver – with bravura, sensitivity and insightful commitment, a labour of love; with tangible and vivid recorded sound and informative documentation, this release can be heartily recommended.