Symphony No.1 in G, Op.4
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.31
Sir Andrew Davis
Recorded 10 & 11 October 2010 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: June 2011
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10670
Duration: 73 minutes
York Bowen (1884-1961), after a period of obscurity, wrote music which has in the last ten or so years, become increasingly appreciated. Stephen Hough’s pioneering recital of piano works for Hyperion (CDA66838) in 2003 played a major part in its renascence after which, not only did Bowen’s music receive more performances, but also recordings of many of his works, and the reissue by APR of his own recordings was a very interesting release.
Bowen’s First Symphony was written in 1902 when the composer was eighteen, a pupil at the Royal Academy of Music in London. This premiere recording is also astonishingly its second only performance. The arresting introduction hints at riches to come; that lively figure remains in the mind with its mix of jauntiness and confidence. The Larghetto second-movement opens with a delightful theme for solo clarinet, repeated later on oboe, but the quiet, contemplative mood is fairly quickly lightened. Bowen’s mastery of orchestrating a wide palette of colours is most impressive. The finale opens perkily, strings and wind solos alternating with some quiet writing for brass. The BBC Philharmonic and Sir Andrew Davis pay close attention to the lightly scored, delicate writing resulting in a delightful, transparent performance. Bowen resists the temptation to produce huge protracted climaxes, and when the full orchestra appears the effect is powerful. By the end, a quick half-hour has passed and one is left satisfied by a charming work with many interesting ideas worked through without becoming prolix.
In the year following the First Symphony, Bowen, a fine pianist, was acclaimed for his First Piano Concerto, premiered at the 1903 Proms under Henry Wood. Another two concertos for piano followed, the second conducted by Hans Richter, and there was also a concerto for viola added to by much for solo piano, voice and for chamber forces. The Second Symphony appeared in 1909. The confident vigour of the First is now replaced with the darker colours of a minor key and the opening motif shows much greater depth in its inspiration. Trumpets and horns alternate in ringing out a prophetic theme before the strings start off the allegro section. Again, tutti climaxes are rationed in length. The BBC Philharmonic’s excellent brass section flourishes, as do the strings in their big moments, and the harps are perfectly balanced. A substantial slow movement follows with a mix of quiet thoughtfulness and passionate outbursts, and the quicksilver scherzo impresses with its transparent textures. The finale is especially impressive; insistent and uplifting the work ends, in a performance of the highest quality, with self-belief, passion and strength.
The recording is superb, reporting a satisfying combination of warmth and clarity. The CD release reproduces excellently. However, for those with sufficiently wide-ranging equipment to warrant the extra expense, even higher quality can be had by downloading the 24-bit files direct from Chandos either to be streamed via suitable equipment or burned to DVD for a player capable of outputting 24/96 quality. Listeners will notice increased lucidity and focus, and the acoustic is resolved with greater fidelity, too.
The accompanying booklet (also downloadable) has an informative essay by Robert Matthew-Walker who makes no excuses for this neglected music, both symphonies being a significant achievement for the composer. The two works have become captivating over repeated listening and are strongly recommended to all lovers of diatonic music of the early twentieth-century.