Edward COWIE (b. 1943)
String Quartet No.3 In Flight Music (1982/3, rewritten 2010) [23:40]
String Quartet No.4 (1984, rewritten 2010) [17:40]
String Quartet No.5 Birdsong Bagatelles (2003/4) [32:52]
rec. St John the Baptist Church, Aldbury, Hertfordshire, 22 October 2014, 15 April 2013, 23 September 2015
NMC D222 [74:28]
I came to know Cowie's music when in 1984 Hyperion released a vinyl disc coupling his Concerto for Orchestra and his Clarinet Concerto No.2; that LP (Hyperion A66120) has not been reissued in CD format so far. In the meantime he composed quite a lot of music in almost every genre. This includes some large-scale choral-orchestral works such as his impressive Gesangbuch (1975/6) now available on Signum SIGCD331 (review review) although I have still to hear it. In any event, his music has been overlooked until now and this recent NMC disc adds three substantial works to his scant discography.
Both the Third and the Fourth String Quartets were composed in quick succession but for whatever reason they were revised in 2010. In fact the liner-note goes so far as to say that they have been rewritten. We are not told how they have been revised or rewritten. This however should not worry us or be a hindrance to our appreciation of these superbly crafted and highly idiomatic works. The composer is a violinist, too, and knows how to write for strings.
The Third String Quartet In Flight Music is, as the composer puts it, a sonic response to both the flight dynamics of living (birds, insects) as well as mechanical (high altitude jets) aviators. The music is by no means programmatic or purely descriptive. Rather it suggests various ideas of flight that have given rise to the capricious twists and turns taken by the music.
In his concise notes the composer mentions that the Fourth String Quartet is a total rewrite of the earlier version composed in the early 1980s. He also mentions that within a very short period of time in 2012/3 four of his close friends died from cancer and his eldest brother from Alzheimer's disease. Quoting the composer again, “in writing a piece that was always intended to be a memorial, I knew that grief and sadness were less prescient than memories of the best and loveliest qualities of the relationships I had with all five of the dedicatees”. The piece is laid-out in a single movement, “a slowly ascending emotional and sensual 'hill-climb' to a kind of hymn at the end”. I really think that this says it all about this quite moving, deeply felt and sincere piece.
Like the Third String Quartet, the Fifth String Quartet Birdsong Bagatelles is rather clearly inspired by highly subjective impressions that the composer may have felt in certain times and places. As the title overtly suggests this is a fairly substantial work comprising twenty-four short movements “exploring and re-opening properties and qualities of the twenty-four major and minor keys” as the composer did in his 24 Preludes for piano. They were recorded on UHRecordings 020011010 by Philip Mead, yet another disc that I have still to hear. One might also be tempted to imagine a Messiaen-like piece entirely made up of birdsong but this is certainly not the case. “These short pieces are far more about the visual displays of birds and the relationship between those behaviours and the habitat in which they live and move”. To conclude his notes on the Fifth String Quartet the composer rather jokingly says that “this is after all a string quartet and not a series of birdsong sonograms”.
These three works leave much to the listener's imagination and the composer avoids any deeply-probing analysis of the music. I suppose that others will some day endorse such an analysis but, as an average music-lover, I was just happy to listen to these finely wrought, idiomatically written and often quite beautiful works. They generously repay repeated hearings. I hope that this very fine release will prompt some renewed interest in Cowie's music. There are still a number of substantial works, orchestral and other, to be committed to disc.