YORK BOWEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 – BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis – Chandos 10670 – [Distr. by Naxos], 73:23 *****:
In the early twentieth century, York Bowen (1884-1961) was a well known English pianist and composer whose works were performed by such luminaries as Lionel Tertis, Fritz Kreisler, Dennis Brain and Hans Richter. But by the time of his death in 1961, he was largely forgotten. Although the music composed by his peers radically changed during his lifetime, Bowen remained consistent in writing music that was Romantic in style. As a piano teacher, he was revered by his students and he regularly performed new music that was stylistically more radical than his own. In fact, such diverse composers as Saint Saens (“the most remarkable of the young British composers”) and Sorabji (wrote piano music with the “mastery and resource” of Rachmaninov and Medtner) lauded his compositions. Recent recordings of his many compositions (concertos, symphonies and piano works) have given his name a new presence in the history of English music.
Bowen was only 18 when he wrote his three movement First Symphony (1902), and it is a work of a gentle musical soul. The diaphanous string writing and the melodically ingratiating second subject of the first movement makes it clear that this thirty minute work is much more than a youthful academic exercise. Even more impressive is the bucolic and leisurely Larghetto, with its memorable melodies successively taken up by the clarinet, flute, oboe and, finally the strings in a lyrical sad refrain. The finale is dramatically more incisive, without losing the symphony’s melodic essence. There is a freshness and spontaneity in this symphony that makes it very appealing. The gorgeous playing of the BBC Philharmonic and Chandos’ atmospheric but detailed sound make this a rich sonic experience.
The magisterial horn opening of Bowen’s Symphony No. 2 (1909) prepares us for a symphony on a grander (and longer—43 minutes) scale. The sheer dramatic power and sophisticated orchestral textures of the first movement are a sharp departure from his earlier symphony. Yet, the sweeping lyrical interludes are reminiscent of film music. A contemplative Lento is highlighted by a lengthy horn solo and a richly romantic melody sung by the strings. Bowen’s happy persona reappears in the brilliantly orchestrated scherzo, punctuated by transparent textures. The grand finale is everything a Romantic symphony should be – sweeping, theatrical and thrilling.
If you like Romantic and colorful orchestral scores with long lyrical lines, you will love these compositions. Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic perform with sensuous beauty and emotive excitement. Chandos’ lush but clear sound is an added plus.
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