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Edward COWIE (b. 1943)
Bell Bird Motet (2011) [8:12]
The Soft Complaining Flute (2003) [6:44]*
Gesangbuch (1975-6) [42:03]
Lyre Bird Motet (2002) [7:14]
BBC Singers
Stephen Cleobury/Simon Joly
Stephen Preston (baroque flute)*
rec. 13 January 2012, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale and 6 June 2003, Phoenix Sound, Wembley, London (Gesangbuch)
SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD331 [64:40]

Superbly recorded by the BBC, this is a rich and varied selection of choral works by British composer Edward Cowie. By far the largest in scale for this programme, the Gesangbuch was the first of a long and fruitful collaboration between Cowie and the BBC Singers. Eloquent and virtuoso vocal writing is joined by colourful instrumentation - a rewarding challenge for performers and audience alike.
 
The Gesangbuch is divided into four movements, with the four seasons as a basis for each. This is an atonal world, but with beautifully atmospheric passages and never a dull moment. The music is angular and intellectually stimulating as well as descriptive, inhabiting that 1970s avant-garde scene which steered clear of obvious tonality. At the same time it suggests elements of close-harmony, a diversity of musical periods including Baroque associations via harpsichord, and a musical journey. This concatenation resolves through remarkable textures of vocally expressed natural sounds into a tonally ‘rapturous benediction’.
 
The smaller scale works on this CD are no less fascinating, the Bell Bird Motet weaving a musical spell around an Australian dawn chorus scene complete with frogs. This is a companion work to the Lyre Bird Motet, which sets an evocative evening vista using major and minor tonalities through which avian characters emerge and interact. My favourite work on the disc is The Soft Complaining Flute, which quite magically introduces the baroque flute arabesques of Stephen Preston over coolly limpid vocal lines and cluster-like chords. It’s a combination which develops into an equal but contrasting dialogue and gives way to a remarkable solo flute cadenza full of skilful glissandi.
 
It is a shame that the sung texts are not given in the booklet, but this is the only minus point in a stunning collection of fascinating contemporary choral repertoire.
 
Dominy Clements

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