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It’s great to see this box of music by York Bowen (1884-1961), recorded between 2003 and 2009 and issued in four separate volumes. The first thing to comment on is presentation. Housed in a smart box, these four volumes of Joop Celis’s excellent survey of Bowen’s piano music are each presented in a slip case with its own booklet. So four booklets to play around with rather than one. Perhaps not ideal, especially if one tends to disorganisation. The excellent booklet notes are by Robert Matthew-Walker, but the order he discusses the works in is generally not the same as the playing order, which can get confusing if there are many smaller pieces on a disc.

The value of this set is in no small measure due to Joop Celis’s staunch advocacy of the music. There is no doubting that York Bowen’s music needs to be taken seriously, and issues like this go a long way to proving it. Danny Driver’s excellent set of Bowen Piano Sonatas on Hyperion should also get an honourable mention (CDA 67751/2), as should that pianist’s recording of Bowen’s Third and Fourth Piano Concertos (CDA67659). Stephen Hough has also recorded a superb Bowen disc on the same label (CDA66838). The playing times for the Chandos discs under consideration here are remarkably generous.

Dutch pianist Joop Celis, a pupil of Paul Badura-Skoda, is a fine musician. His core strength is that he realises Bowen’s integrity as a composer. Even when writing what might loosely be described as salon music, Bowen keeps his own identity and, more importantly, continues to write music of worth. So it is that Celis can present some of the more minor works unapologetically next to pieces of greater stature, and the recitals (for such each of these discs is) work perfectly. The end of the final disc is a case in point: the ten-minute, robust, clearly Chopin-nfluenced Polonaise Op 28 No 2 sits next to the gossamer-light, French-fragranced A Whim. Celis rarely allows the music to descend into schmalz, even where it would be easy to do so (although he comes dangerously close in the Waltz from the Third Suite). Try the Andante grazioso of the Three Sketches, Op 43 for an example of Celis at his finest in this regard.

Listening to the volumes in order means beginning with Bowen’s last composition, a rather bizarre way of approaching things. Still, here it is, the premiere recording of the Sixth Sonata (1961). The intriguing harmonic twists are typical of Bowen. While the central Intermezzo is decidedly English in tone, the Finale brings in one of Bowen’s major influences, and one that the listener encounters many times in the set: the French Impressionists. Celis copes with the diffi culties here, as elsewhere, as if they are no problem, the focus remaining purely on the music. The first volume couples this sonata with one of Bowen’s masterpieces, the 24 Preludes, dedicated to Sorabji. The influences of Chopin, Scriabin and Medtner are all present here, along with Debussy (the Third Prelude effectively journeys from Chopin to Debussy), Elgar (the Fifth) and Rachmaninov. Somehow it all hangs together, perhaps because the stylistic references are incidental to Bowen’s own voice. It’s a nice touch to end the disc with Bowen’s distinctive strain of melancholy enshrined in the B minor Reverie, Op 86.

The Fifth Sonata of 1923 forms the meat of the second disc. Acerbic in tone at times, it is distinctly and audibly linked to Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata. Celis’s strength here is his flexibility to the changes of mood; reflective passages could, in lesser hands, appear to ramble. Occasionally one feels Celis is a little studio-bound and that he would be more daring in concert, but this remains a strong performance. The gem of this disc, though, is the Fantasia, Op 132, with its gorgeously deep, burnished opening. One experiences the experimental element as Bowen spreading his wings. It is remarkable to think this is the premiere recording. Brahms informs the Op 141 Intermezzi (interesting that the booklet notes link this piece to French music, and one can indeed imagine a more perfumed account; yet Celis’s slightly detached manner works perfectly).

The rather bitty third disc holds the Second Ballade, the Short Sonata and the Toccata as its highlights: the Ballade moves from Chopin to Ravel, while the Short Sonata foregrounds beauty. The Toccata is more Lisztian. The final disc includes the premiere recording of the remarkably inventive Partita, the character pieces of the Suite Mignonne and the Third Suite (which at one point seems to nod towards Berg). For pure delight, the second of the Sketches, Op 43 is the one to go to.

There are a huge number of premiere recordings in this set, which in combination with the excellence of both pianism and recording makes it self-recommending.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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