Friday, July 15, 2011

York Bowen – The English Rachmaninoff

There were a few loose ends to tie up from my last visit to New York. One concerned a composer, previously unknown to me; York Bowen (1884-1961), a composer of some 155 works, a pianist with vast talents, an accomplished musician on many fronts. The first time I had any opportunity to hear anything by Bowen was from an English pianist named Simon I met while upstairs at Beethoven's in New York. Simon was playing on a Hailun HG 198 grand  to good advantage, as it responded to everything he tried on it with apparent ease.

Of York Bowen's music, it would in some cases cause you to think it's perhaps something by Rachmaninoff you haven't heard yet, as Rachmaninoff wrote a great deal of music most people haven't heard yet, myself included. But it isn't; there's also some scent of Arnold Bax (1883-1953), or of an even a more obscure English or Irish composer, as there were some a hundred years ago or so, as the English and Irish woke up from their cultural delusion about the value of making music, having left it to foreigners for as long as 200 years.

For a first taste of it, a comparatively late work, written in 1957, Bowen's Toccata Op, 155, which is apparently quite popular among aspiring virtuoso pianists because it's obviously quite difficult to play. One realizes as a pianist that the most complex strings of notes in this piece are only a series of connected shorter movements of fingers, hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, waist and legs, with appropriate breathing. For the listener, there is much that can be gained from being able to listen to several versions of the same piece, which is how one gets to “know” or at least recognize a piece of music. For those who listen, but do not play a musical instrument, you can imagine just what is required for a pianist to “learn” a piece of music well enough to play it, whether pianists decide to read from the music as they play or do it completely from memory (as each one must decide how best to pull off the best performance they are comfortable with). As for musical style, there is much emulation of Ravel and Debussy, perhaps even of Prokofiev.

So here are examples of this piece:

An apparent piano virtuoso in the making (following a long tradition of promoting child prodigies, for the good or ill it does to music), this young lady certainly knocks out all this composition's contours very nicely. This superb performance should serve to challenge all of us. (By the way, her teacher, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, has a long association with the Newport Music Festival, where he has acquitted himself very nicely to many great masterpieces of the Classical and Romantic – still don't like the terms – piano repertoire, so I am not surprised this young lady played this well.)

This seems a bit more of a studied performance, very clear definite phrasing. I do not know who Hojoon is, but he plays this very well indeed.

Yet another version, notice how smooth she has made all the phrases you might have thought of as pointed, while listening to the previous versions.

Obviously interest in this composer should be on the increase because those of us around the world who are interested in this art form with the passion accorded to a life's work, a religious understanding or something perhaps even deeper, and Bowen left a great many pieces of music, large scale works, which have not received the attention they deserve. But as Mahler said of his own works, “my time will come,” so does this apply to the largely undiscovered work of York Bowen, the English Rachmaninoff.


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