This disc is one of a series which highlights the works
of forgotten British composers. The composer, Cowen, was a principal
conductor to the London Philharmonic, Hallé and Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestras. To me it seems ludicrous that British CD companies
and those British orchestras associated with Cowen continue to turn
their backs on interesting music that is part of a British heritage.
They are instead shown a direction by Central European orchestras, as
here, the one providing this recording.
This CD is a most enjoyable find and confirms that
Cowen is worth investigating further.
Frederic Cowen, used to be a popular composer
in Britain when a considerable amount of his music was put into print
in the early 20th Century. As many readers will be unaware
of Cowen something about his background might be interesting.
As a child protégé, he had written a
piano trio by the time he was thirteen that was performed alongside
Joachim and cellist, Pezze. He had been a student of Goss and Benedict,
teachers who paved the way for him to go to Leipzig Conservatoire where
he was tutored by Moscheles, Reinecke and Richter. He moved briefly
to Berlin as a pupil of Kiel at the Stern Conservatory before returning
to London where he began to regularly perform at concerts as a pianist.
His first important recognition as a composer came
in 1869 with performances of his First Symphony and his Piano Concerto.
Cowen wrote six symphonies in all, works that he considered his most
satisfying achievement. He provided an abundance of choral music (mainly
for the festivals he was associated with), operas that enjoyed some
contemporary success, and around 300 songs, many of which have retained
a continuing place in popular repertoire.
It has been suggested that, like Sullivan, his gift
lay rather in the composition of light music. The symphonies, at least,
would suggest a more substantial talent. Indeed, the Vienna critic Eduard
Hanslick, who counted Cowen among the amiable and cultivated gentlemen
dominating music in London, found that his works showed good schooling,
a lively sense of tone painting and much skill in orchestration, although
not striking in originality. He went on to suggest that the more concise
forms of instrumental music and serious choral works might be the field
best suited to his gifts.
When embarking on his professional career, Cowen was
first employed as an accompanist for James Henry Mapleson's opera company,
under conductor, Sir Michael Costa (of Covent Garden fame) at Her Majesty's
Theatre. Costa arranged a commission from the Birmingham Festival that
brought in the same year the cantata The Corsair, based on Byron's
poem of that name. It was, however, the Scandinavian Symphony,
first performed at St. James's Hall in December 1880, that established
Cowen as a composer of importance in English musical life.
In 1888 Cowen followed Sullivan as permanent conductor
of the London Philharmonic Society, interrupting his tenure for a lucrative
visit to Melbourne for the Australian Centennial Exhibition to conduct
daily concerts. From 1896 until 1899 he was conductor of the Hallé
Orchestra in Manchester, employed, some suggested, as a temporary substitute
for Hans Richter. At the same time he held an appointment with the Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra, which he relinquished in 1913. In Bradford Cowen
was conductor of the Festival Choral Society and its permanent orchestra
and for ten years (from 1900). He had much affection for Glasgow as
conductor of the Scottish Orchestra. Other engagements included the
direction of the Cardiff Festival from 1902 until 1910 and the direction
of the triennial Handel festivals, starting in 1903. He was knighted
in 1911 and received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Cambridge
and Edinburgh. (I mention his connection with Britain's leading orchestras
because it is strange to discover none have honoured Cowen in their
recordings: this cannot be due to reservations of his skills as a composer.)
So where is he now? Obviously pushed aside by the movement within certain
colleges, which promoted the continental masters and only British composers
The Symphony No. 3 'Scandinavian'
was inspired from a tour of Scandinavia as accompanist to the French
contralto Zéfla Trebelli, prima donna in a number of seasons
with Mapleson's company. The work won remarkable popularity at home
and abroad. The symphony is a robust work that contains some pleasant
and unusual orchestral effects which must be far from easy for musicians
In the first movement a delightful theme is introduced
following an opening by the wind section (clarinets and bassoons) which
is interrupted by arresting Beethovian chords on the strings. A flowing
melody is then developed to provide an appealing movement.
The Scandinavian colour is provided by off-stage horns
in the second movement. A romantic theme returns to an initial horn
theme and this eventually dies away. A second romantic theme with Mahlerian
overtones and delicately rippling string accompaniment reminds us of
the Scandinavian landscape. (Try tk.7 from 5'22" in.)
Cowen is at his most inventive in the third movement.
The violas/cellos provide a catchy repetitive motif (not easy to maintain)
that enhances the bright and chirpy theme floating on top. (Listen to
tk.6 for the first 1' 45" to show what I mean.)
The fourth robust movement is probably the least satisfactory
of the symphony: it has a distinctly Arabian, rather than Scandinavian
feel and reinforces my belief that Cowen rarely researched the music
of other countries. A main motif comes across as crude but this may
be due to the poor recording balance (see below). The movement has violent
mood swings and in parts is somewhat disjointed, until recapitulation
of the earlier romantic themes takes place. All becomes resolved and
we are subjected to an enjoyable ending.
The concert overture, The Butterfly's Ball,
written in 1901, is a well-crafted work, making delicate use of a large
orchestra. It is descriptive and frothy, has comic overtones, and in
passages provides a hint of Der Rosenkavalier. While not a particularly
substantial composition, the overture shows Cowen's facility in handling
the orchestra and his gift for pleasing melody, the whole suggesting
the ephemeral Cinderella existence of the butterfly, fated to enjoy
only one day of life. It is dedicated to the Queen's Hall Orchestra,
managed and later financed by Robert Newman. In 1895, six years previously,
the first promenade concerts had been given at the Hall, under the direction
of Henry Wood (who was to continue the concert series until 1940).
The Indian Rhapsody makes me wonder if
Cowen ever travelled: the colours and themes are more Oriental than
Indian and it might have been better entitled, 'A Chinese Market'. We
are presented with good orchestral textures and the whole piece holds
together well. The work dedicated to Cowen's 'Scottish Orchestra', an
orchestra established in Glasgow to supersede the Choral Union Orchestra.
Indian Rhapsody was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival
in Hereford the same year.
The performance has been recorded with the string sections
too closely miked, The particularly dry acoustics, slightly reminiscent
of early post-war recordings, is unusual in Marco Polo and does little
justice to the excellent orchestral playing under Adrian Leaper's direction
or qualities of the Kosice Hall where recorded. This tends to subconsciously
affect the listener's judgement of Cowen, which shouldn't be the case.
If this disc is being considered for reissue on the Naxos label then
the addition of some artificial reverberation could enhance the 'boxy'
string sections and give the performance ambience a new lease of life.