York Bowen

York Bowen: The Complete Solo 78-rpm Recordings

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English composer and pianist York Bowen made his first record for the giga-obscure Marathon label in 1915, but most of his activity as a recording artist is centered between 1923 and 1927 for English Vocalion, the same firm home to his friend, violist Lionel Tertis. When Vocalion reorganized, Bowen did not remain on the roster. Bowen made a final recording of his own compositions only in 1961 for the Lyrita label, and all but this last studio session is included on APR's York Bowen: The Complete Solo 78-rpm Recordings. Although complaints about his technique may be located in English concert reviews in the mid-'20s -- exactly the period represented on these discs -- the recordings make obvious that Bowen was a phenomenal pianist with technique to burn, a light touch, and excellent taste, though at times there is some measure of rigidity to his phrasing, such as in his rendering of Debussy's Jardins sous la pluie.

While Bowen fanciers will regard this as a boon and even those not so inclined can appreciate historical value to this collection -- Bowen made his public debut as pianist in 1893 -- there are some drawbacks to this recorded legacy. First of all, as is likewise observed in Tertis' recordings, English Vocalion's pressings were noisy no matter what, though in several tracks presented here transfer engineer Ward Marston has found a way to tame the shellac beast. Also, in terms of selection Bowen was subject to the same constraints as other pianists of his day; of the 33 works heard here, only five come from his own pen. The best of these appear to be the Fragments from Hans Anderson, prefaced by Bowen's own Vermouth-dry narration. Although Bowen was well known as an advocate of his contemporaries among composers, here he is only permitted a couple of very short pieces by Balfour Gardiner and an early miniature by Peggy Cochrane, a composer/pianist/violinist/vocalist better known for other things.

However, Bowen's Beethoven recordings are mighty impressive; his acoustic recording of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto in G major was the first ever made, presented along with Bowen's own rather incongruous cadenzas. The two Beethoven piano sonata performances are better, with the Allegro vivace of the Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp being stunning in its virtuosity and energy. Likewise, the Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien and the Eglogue from Liszt's Swiss Années are engaging, artistically singular performances for this distant era. The two pieces from the 1915 Marathon disc, which utilized a "hill and dale" cut to facilitate a longer running time, has surprisingly good sound for an acoustic piano recording and serves as the only recorded document of Bowen's pre-war prime.

In summation, if your desire is to hear Bowen the composer interpreting his own work, then you're probably better off with the Lyrita recording, paired on compact disc with another composer/pianist, Franz Reizenstein. However, if one's interest runs toward York Bowen the pianist, then this APR release is definitely the right place to be.

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