British composer York Bowen (1884-1961) has for many years been a peripheral figure in 20th century music history, perhaps because of the old-fashioned Romanticism of this work, but an increasing number of recordings are bringing his gifts to the attention of new audiences. This Naxos release featuring the Bridge Duo, made up of violist Matthew Jones and pianist Michael Hampton, includes Bowen's two sonatas for viola and piano, both written in 1905 for the great British violist Lionel Tertis, and his 1918 Phantasy for viola and piano. Tertis' playing was a significant inspiration for Bowen, who ultimately wrote about a dozen works for viola.
Although he was not entirely an original, Bowen's music is distinctive, appealing, and beautifully crafted. His writing is frequently Brahmsian in its harmonic vocabulary and progressions, as well as in its soaring lyricism. These works are characterized by a brawny extroversion that sets them apart from the more pastoral sound of his contemporary Vaughan Williams. Bowen is at his best when he cuts loose with unmediated passion and intensity. (He was nicknamed "the English Rachmaninov.") His movements may begin modestly, but it is in his impressive developments that they gain stature and depth, as demonstrated powerfully in the first movement of his Second Sonata. In these works, Bowen particularly exploits the viola's rich lower register. Jones has a vibrant tone that is pleasantly husky and baritonal and is beautifully suited to the character of the music. He and Hampton play with empathetic coordination and expressive ardor, and they convey a palpable understanding of and appreciation for the music. Naxos' sound is clean, detailed, and impressively realistic and present; the players sound like they are practically close enough to reach out and touch. The album will be essential for any viola lovers and should appeal to fans of lyrical late Romantic chamber music.