Danny Driver

York Bowen: The Piano Sonatas

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English pianist/composer York Bowen is finally getting his due as a composer with the re-publication of much of his music, and thus, new recordings appearing in the decades on either side of the turn of the 21st century, some 40 years after his death. This Hyperion double-disc set is the first recording to bring together all of his known sonatas for solo piano, including first recordings of Piano Sonatas No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, performed by Danny Driver. One would expect this type of collection to give an idea of the composer's stylistic development through his career, but with Bowen, there isn't too much different between the first sonatas, written when he was in his late teens/early twenties at the turn of the 20th century, and the last sonata, believed to be Bowen's last completed composition, from 1961. There is a great deal of technical compositional maturity in the early sonatas. They demonstrate that Bowen fully grasped the ideas and traditional structures of the sonata form, as well as an understanding of the Romantic tradition of grand, sweeping expression shaped by a degree of pianistic virtuosity. Individual moments bring to mind Beethoven's, Chopin's, and Rachmaninov's piano writing, but rather than being a hodgepodge of imitative gestures, each of Bowen's movements and each sonata in itself both hang together very well. The Short Sonata and Sonata No. 5 date from the 1920s, and show that Bowen had developed a slightly more adventurous harmonic language -- still very much tonal, but with even more chromatic harmonic movement than before -- and a slightly more free-flowing approach to form. The final Sonata No. 6, although almost 40 years older than No. 5, isn't that much different and was surely old-fashioned-sounding compared to contemporary works. Yet, none of this is to say that Bowen's sonatas are not worth getting to know, and Driver makes an excellent case for them. He has the technical skills to ably handle these sonatas and doesn't indulge in the dramatics of them. He nicely balances out the pensive moods, the wistfulness, and the passion with the balletic athleticism and the formality of the sonatas. His performance is an introduction to Bowen's music, not only for fans of post-Romantic piano music, but to other pianists, as well, who might be looking for alternatives to Rachmaninov, Grieg, and Medtner.

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