Mark Tanner

York Bowen: Piano Music

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British composer York Bowen, who was active all through the first half of the twentieth century, was called the English Rachmaninoff, or, less charitably, Rachmaninoff edited by John Ireland. He was conservative even by the standards of British music, a formidable writer for the piano, and not half the melodist Rachmaninoff was. Pianist Stephen Hough released a collection of Bowen pieces featuring a large number of his cycle of 24 preludes (one in each key), which showcase the composer's ability to pose interesting technical problems and solve them. Bowen may be best on such small canvases, as in the lighthearted Turnstiles, Op. 98/3 (CD 1, track 4) here, or the pair of Songs Without Words, Op. 94, which are not Mendelssohnian but deploy quiet virtuosity in the service of particular moods. Longer works such as the Ballade No. 1 and Fantasia, Op. 132, display thematic material less sufficient to support their large structures, although there are certainly plenty of pianistic fireworks. Several of the pieces here are being recorded for the first time, including the Suite No. 2 (CD 2, tracks 1-4), which somehow fails to make its case as a connected group of pieces despite the whimsical finale, "A Romp." Such premieres are always welcome as twentieth century music emerges from under the thumb of an invidious modernism, but the general listener's needs may be better served by Hough's recording. Hyperion's sound has more depth than that managed here by the Priory label of Leighton Buzzard. But the true British music aficionado will want this disc, as well; pianist Mark Tanner has all the technical equipment that could be desired, and he is especially effective in the more delicate passages.

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