YORK BOWEN: Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 107; 2 pieces, Op. 106; Waltz in C, Op. 108; First Rhapsody for solo piano, Op. 8; Theme and Variations, Op. 139 – Michael Dussek, John Reid, pianos – Dutton

by | Jan 14, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

YORK BOWEN: Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 107; 2 pieces, Op. 106; Waltz in C, Op. 108; First Rhapsody for solo piano, Op. 8; Theme and Variations, Op. 139 – Michael Dussek, John Reid, pianos – Dutton 7218, 67:09 ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Dutton continues its admirable series devoted to the music of British composer York Bowen (1884-1961). Bowen was, at his height, perhaps the premier pianist of his country, and as a result wrote many pieces for the instrument, often for his own use. Here we get an album almost exclusively dedicated to his two-piano music. Before those of you who have an allergy to this sort of thing abort this article, read on.

Bowen was a prolific composer across all idioms, and he also did not harbor bias against any type of music designed for particular age groups, hence we have music for amateurs, children, and the most demanding of expectations from seasoned professionals. From an early age he and his compatriot Arnold Bax would perform much music for piano two-hands, and he developed a taste and flair for the genre. But unlike some composers, whose music in this area seems substandard or not even well-known, Bowen saved his considerable compositional talents for the piano, even for two pianos, and as a result all of this music rises far above the merely routine; indeed, the opening Sonata No. 2 (out of six total) is one of the finest examples you will hear of sonata writing of any age, let alone one for two pianos. The work is demonstrably dramatic and intimidating, lyrical and emotional. I can’t remember when I have been so stricken by a new work (to me) before, but this is most engaging, as is his last work in the genre, the Op. 139 Theme and Variations. This latter inhabits a different world (10 years later than the sonata) and is more abstract if you will, but I don’t mean to overuse the word. Abstract for Bowen is something different than for Boulez. Suffice it to say that these are tightly-knit, principled variations of the highest order.

The other works for two pianos are both delightful diversions, especially the Waltz. The only work for single piano is the early and romantically imbued First Rhapsody. This piece is as passionate as any you might hear (although considering what was going on in 1902, a touch anachronistic), and I am surprised I have not heard it before—it is the only one currently listed in the catalog. All the more reason to rejoice in this recording, played for the ages by Dussek and Reid, and a very welcome release in Dutton’s typically well-planned and accommodating sound.

— Steven Ritter

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