York Bowen was renowned during his lifetime (1884-1961) as a virtuoso pianist while as a composer he was dubbed, rightly or wrongly, “the English Rachmaninov”. Saint-Saëns, no less, was an admirer.
The bulk of Bowen’s First Symphony was composed when he was 18. If it were a person, I imagine it would be a genial, ruddy-cheeked countryman eager to buy you a pint. The orchestration is delightful and full of subtle colouring and themes with convincing development. The entire three-movement work has a charming alfresco quality. I was bemused to read one contemporary review which condescendingly described it as full of “frolicsome innocence”. How such precocious talent could be described as innocent is beyond me.
The Second Symphony of 1909 is more ambitious and substantial. Bowen’s inventiveness never falters over the entire duration of almost 45 minutes. The first two movements are long-spanned but impressively cohesive, completely avoiding the episodic structure of so many 20th century English symphonies. The scherzo is an absolute charmer: a cross between Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, begging to be described as “gossamer”. Bowen clearly had no truck with the finale-itis (the qualitative fault line between the first three movements and the last, which often descends to vacuous note-spinning) that afflicted even composers of Walton’s calibre.
The final movement here is just as inspired as its predecessors and in fact ends in a real blaze of creative glory. Once again, Chandos and Sir Andrew Davis have put us in their debt for unearthing these scores. Both the sound and performances are excellent.