York Bowen: Piano Concertos No.3 (Fantasia) Op.23 & No.4, Op.88

Danny Driver; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion CDA 67659)

19 October 2008 4 stars

Bowen: Concertos 3 & 4Given Hyperion's championing of the works of York Bowen – including Stephen Hough's award winning disc of his piano works from over a decade ago and Lawrence Power's recordings of his music for viola – it's maybe a little surprising that the 'English Rachmaninoff' hasn't featured in the Romantic Piano Concertos series until now, with this release of volume forty-six.

The two concertos performed here are the third, a 'Fantasia' from 1907 less than twenty minutes in length, and the more substantial fourth, from 1929, dubbed by Sorabji 'the greatest work for piano and orchestra by an Englishman.' Both pieces are grist to the mill of this exemplary series, bursting with ideas, melody and, of course virtuosic flourishes by the handful. British pianist Danny Driver, a Bowen specialist who gives the US premiere of the Third Concerto this season, is fully up to the challenges, technical and temperamental, and is accompanied with gusto by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

The 'English Rachmaninoff' epithet is one that is best ignored when listening to this music, at least in the case of the 'Fantasia' where the English tag alone best sums up the work: this is music full of imagination yet it only ever sounds as though it could be English. Even the chinoiserie Bowen playfully introduces and the impressionistic touches which abound all occur within a delightfully English idiom. There's a fair amount of surging lyricism and the beautiful central Andante grazioso section features strong melodic ideas against passionate, swirling arpeggios, but it's a work that is eminently entertaining, shows immense compositional skill, but never seems terribly keen to plumb the emotional depths.

The Fourth Concerto, on the other hand, is significantly more ambitious both formally and emotionally, as demonstrated by the expansive strains of its opening – admittedly in this case slightly reminiscent of the opening chords of Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto. Bowen's harmonic language, even in this later work, is still firmly rooted in the golden age of the romantic concerto but is gently spiced with the flavours of the French fin-de-siècle as well as the melodic freedom of more popular genres. And the stern opening dissolves into a movement that is predominantly easy-going in tone, despite some rhetorical outbursts. Throughout, Driver negotiates the piano writing with what strikes me as the perfect balance of passion and cool virtuosity, and is impressive in the cadenza.

The first movement closes in lyrical vein and this extends into the dreamy slow movement, which starts with a touching melody on cor anglais followed by viola, accompanied by the piano with wistful lyricism. The melodic ideas are developed with enormous skill and an improvisatory fluidity that does indeed bring Rachmaninoff to mind once or twice, even if inevitably there's a lack of the Russian's brooding romanticism. A delicious central section sees the piano accompanying yet another idea, passed between the excellent soloists of the BBCSSO against Driver's ardent arpeggio flourishes. It's music in the grand manner that will sweep all but the most cold-hearted listener along and Bowen even throws in a few surprises, delaying and interrupting several of the lyrical climaxes.

The finale is announced with an elaborate fanfare, answered by the piano and an atmospheric melody that would not sound out of place in a film score. Again, Driver is a fantastic guide through the filigree and sweeping rhetoric of the piano writing and the BBCSSO play wonderfully – listen for the sweetly lyrical melody passed between the wind instruments from around 2'30. Bowen's use of rasping trombones around the four minute mark sounds a little misjudged, but it's a movement brimming with melodic appeal and originality, and the composer surprises us with a reflective, thoughtful ending to the work. The variety of ideas could lead to the the work's unity being compromised, but in a performance of flair and conviction, such as Driver and Brabbins deliver, it holds together well.

The jury's still out as to whether York Bowen really is unfairly neglected, but there's little doubt that either of these works - and the fourth in particular - would would go down a storm in concert. Hyperion should be thanked, once again though, for letting us give this music a chance.

By Hugo Shirley

UK Release Date: 1 November 2008

See also our reviews of other releases in the Romantic Piano Concertos series:
Vol. 44 - Jonathan Plowright playing concertos by Henryk Melcer here
Vol. 45 - Howard Shelley in concertos by Ferdinand Hiller here