YORK BOWEN: Violin Suite, Op. 28; Cello Sonata, Op. 64; Violin Sonata in e, Op. 112; Viola Sonata No. 1 in c; Viola Sonata No. 2 in F; Phantasy for Viola and Piano, Op. 54 – Endymion Ensemble/ James Boyd, viola/ Bengt Forsberg, piano – Dutton Epoch LXBOX 2011 (2 CDs), 2:26:32 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
There were few composers who emerged in the early twentieth century who could foster a greater claim to fame than York Bowen (1884-1961), noted not only for his compositions but also for his not inconsiderable pianistic talents. Though a product of the Royal Academy of Music, somewhat a rival to the more notable Royal College of Music that produced Bax, Bantock, Holbrooke, and Coates, Bowen went his own way even when it meant distress to his career. 30 years later each of these aforementioned composers had eclipsed him in the public mind, even though his later music is far more advanced in many ways that theirs.
This wasn’t always the case; in fact, when one listens to his initially vastly popular Violin Suite (written for Kreisler) one comes away with more than just a strong whiff of the parlor—it’s almost as if Kreisler dictated the tunes to him, though Bowen is far more adept at transforming the material that Kreisler ever accomplished. The two Viola Sonatas also smack of this to a certain extent, but because the dedicatee was Lionel Tertis, and the chosen instrument the viola, Bowen was forced to expand and create a new kind of sound that elevated the instrument’s status into something truly virtuosic and amenable to the type of pyrotechnics Bowen hoisted on it, even though they were written at about the same time as the Violin Suite.
But the Phantasy, one of many such-named pieces by the composer, moves us into a different world altogether; it, along with the Cello Sonata composed three years later, are far more rhapsodic and reflective than the British-bent of the earlier pieces—the cello work especially is a marvel of impressionistic and heartrending feeling that begins to touch on the harmonies of Richard Strauss.
The German also figures heavily in the E-minor Violin Sonata written at the end WWII. This piece is far more advanced harmonically than any of his other string works, and bespeaks a composer who was true to his tonal roots yet was not afraid to tinker with the new and different, modulating frequently and exploring the outer regions of tonality with boldness and confidence. This is a masterly work, actually one of two twins—the other, unfortunately, is lost.
The Endymion players handle these pieces with aplomb, giving us about as much as we could ask for. While I did detect the slightest hint of technical insecurity in some passages of the Violin Suite played by Krysia Osostowicz, she does seem to regain stature in the late sonata. All others are simply wonderful, making for quite a considerable package.
An excellent DG debut!