CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Edwin York Bowen and Charles Ives

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews two new releases of works by Edwin York Bowen and Charles Ives.

EDWIN YORK BOWEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in g minor (Fantasia), op. 23 (1907). Piano Concerto No. 4 in a minor, op. 88 (1929). Danny Driver, piano; with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Hyperion 67659.

York Bowen died in late November 1961 at the age of 77, largely forgotten but widely respected. Bowen was a phenomenal pianist and also proficient on organ, viola and horn; among his teachers was the very long-lived Tobias Matthay (1858-1945), also the teacher of Myra Hess and Clifford Curzon (among many others) and the author of a book on the loose wrist as the key to a sound keyboard technique. Matthay’s book, like Leopold Mozart’s book on violin-playing and C.P.E. Bach’s on keyboardism, is one of those volumes that seem destined to be more talked about than actually read.

Bowen started young, gaining a solid reputation as both pianist and composer. He was championed and admired by conductors like Hans Richter and Sir Henry Wood, prominent on the London musical scene in the first years of the twentieth century. Wood himself said that Bowen had never gotten the recognition he deserved as a composer. Bowen would have gained wide fame as a pianist had he never composed a note of music. He introduced all four of his piano concertos and made the first commercial recording of the Beethoven fourth concerto in 1925, using his own cadenzas (which must be compelling, the primitive recording technique of the time notwithstanding).

Bowen’s style is essentially “romantic”. The third concerto is a brilliant and exciting work that starts off with flourishes for both orchestra and soloist. Essentially a one-movement work in four sections, it is fully on a par with the contemporary works of Medtner and Rachmaninoff. It is the work of a young composer who lacks nothing in self-confidence and in ideas and how to make them work. There is abundant contrast and flowing lyricism. The young British pianist Danny Driver, who is in the process of recording Bowen’s complete piano sonatas for Hyperion as well, handsomely serves this unfairly neglected master and seems to project Bowen’s extroverted style of playing.

The fourth concerto is no less compelling, written some twenty-two years after its predecessor, opening with a ponderous Moderato serioso in triple meter for piano and orchestra together, with the timpani giving what sounds like a walking-pace six to a bar. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, never one to hand out compliments, called this the finest piano concerto written by an Englishman. This is a bigger work than the third, on a larger scale and with much more elements of contrast. Each moment is savored; the consummate skill in orchestration and in idiomatic piano writing are much more in abundance, and this is very clear from the beginning. It is a no less alluring work than the third or Fantasia, but challenges the listener just as much as it enthralls him. It is a piece that grows on the listener with repeated hearings. Bowen’s mastery of musical form is self-evident in a very striking way throughout all forty-three minutes of this Fourth Concerto. It seems to go hand-in-glove with his keen sense of instrumental color.

It is indeed fortunate that this music is being rediscovered and re-examined; and, what is more, that it is getting the kind of committed and finished performance offered in these recordings.

CHARLES IVES: Holidays Symphony (movement 2: Decoration Day; movement 3: The Fourth of July and movement 4: Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day); The General Slocum; Overture in g minor; Yale-Princeton Football Game; Postlude in F. James Sinclair Conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Malmö Chamber Chorus (in Thanksgiving). Naxos 8.559370.

Charles Ives Holidays SymphonyCharles Ives’ Holidays symphony has been a familiar piece, light-years ahead of its time (roughly composed between 1913 or thereabout and the mid-1920s), employing elements of atonality and with several metrically unrelated pieces of music going on at the same time (requiring, more often than not, the services of more than one conductor). Decoration Day, which Igor Stravinsky termed a masterpiece, is described as being edited by James Sinclair, the conductor on this disc; The Fourth of July, which begins and ends atonally (with the famous sound collages emulating several marching bands playing unrelated music at the same time), is credited as a “realization by W. Shirley) and Thanksgiving as “edited by K. Elkus”. I am not sure if simplification has entered the picture, as in Harold Farberman’s one-conductor version of the at-times multirhythmic Fourth Symphony of forty years ago. At times, the clarification of Ives’ endemically messy textures in The Fourth of July provokes a mixed response: one is grateful to hear the piece, ostensibly the same as in, say, Leonard Bernstein’s old recording, in a different light—but the messy textures, a hallmark of Ives’ works in a more or less late Romantic style as well as of his atonal music, are part of the charm of an unabashedly eccentric and defiantly creative painter of musical landscapes.

Heard for the first time are Ives’ Overture in g minor, probably composed under the supervision of Horatio W. Parker while a student at Yale; the highly evocative, and highly dissonant, symphonic poem The General Slocum, commemorating a 1904 explosion aboard an excursion boat in which over a thousand people perished. There are quotes from what sounds like popular dance tunes of the day, not recognizable to this reviewer. Sinclair, executive editor of the Charles Ives Society, which has brought out several hitherto-unpublished works by the American icon, serves Ives handsomely in this recording. The Postlude in F, edited by one K. Singleton, was originally an organ work of the composer’s teenage years. This recording is highly recommended.

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