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Edward COWIE (b. 1943)
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 (1979-1980) [22:14]
Concerto for Orchestra (1981-1982) [22:23]
Alan Hacker (clarinet), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Howard Williams
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 2 November 1983 (Concerto for Orchestra), 29 January 1984 (Clarinet Concerto)
MÉTIER MSV92108 [44:38]

Hyperion Records (A66120) released in 1984 a significant LP of Edward Cowie’s two major works: the Clarinet Concerto No. 2 and the Concerto for Orchestra. This was just after the European advent of the compact disc in 1983. This recording never made it onto disc – until now. In danger of indulging in hyperbole, I think that if any two pieces of British music from the late 1970s and early 1980s demand to be re-presented to the musical public, it is these. In fact, this CD is my record of the year, so far. I should note my reliance whilst preparing this review on the original Hyperion sleeve notes by Andrew Burn and on conversations with the composer. For details of Edward Cowie’s life and times, I refer the reader to the opening paragraph of my review of the String Quartets published in these pages, as well as the composer’s personal website.

The hermeneutic for understanding Edward Cowie’s music is straightforward, even if the music is complex. The composer wrote: ‘Art is illusion and about transforming things: my music feeds on experiences, surroundings, the tangible and intangible world, on things that move and change’. In other words, metamorphosis. On the other hand, nature, topography and artworks are key stimuli in this music. I have noted before that Cowie has a wide range of extra-musical interests and talent including ornithology, field studies, painting and broadcasting. These pursuits all feed into his compositions.

It is no secret that the wonderful land/seascape of Morecambe Bay has inspired much of Cowie’s music. Such places as Leighton Moss, Martinmere and the wide panoramas gained from Hest Bank have made themselves felt in his music. An early celebration of this topography was found in his choral Gesangbuch (1975), which is effectively Cowie’s Four Seasons. This music displayed a vast range of timbres and extended vocal and instrumental techniques.

The Concerto for Orchestra also celebrates the numinous effect of Morecambe Bay. The work, completed in 1982, was premiered by Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Howard Williams. It is dedicated to fellow composer, and Cowie’s teacher, Alexander Goehr. The piece carries a subtitle, which allows the listener to appreciate what is going on: ‘Studies in the Movement of Water’. It is known that Cowie made an extensive set of drawings, paintings and photographs of the little Rivers Kent, Greta, and the larger Lune, all flowing into Morecambe Bay and out into the Irish Sea. The Bay is surrounded by a varied landscape: The Lake District Mountains, the pastoral fields of Furness, and the wide-ranging sand and mud banks, all showcased by amazing sunsets. On the downside, there are wind factories, a nuclear power station and gas platforms – all of which are (possibly) necessary evils.

Andrew Burn has observed that the waters of the bay ‘create a kaleidoscope of currents’ that play into the pre-compositional material that Cowie had generated. The composer has written that this provides ‘a continuum alternately turbulent, still, turbulent, of this wonderful ever-changing element: a continuous stream of impulses which can move as a great wave or a small ripple’. All this imagery has been poured into a three-part musical mould. The opening and closing sections, fast and dissonant, bookend a slow, magical atmosphere that is almost ‘tonal’ in its effect. There is no repetition as such in this music, which develops organically from the start to finish. I hazard this opinion without studying the score. Instrumentally, the Concerto for Orchestra presents overlapping sounds. No matter how the orchestra has been divided up, there is always depth to the proceedings. It is like Morecambe Bay itself. Water lies at various depths and currents that move and criss-cross in a multitude of patterns. The music often sounds dissonant in a positive way, with some degree of consonance to provide contrast and repose. The whole experience is a virtuosic display for the entire orchestra: it is not designed to showcase individual soloists. Despite the intricacy of the Concerto for Orchestra, the present performance never loses its place or gets out of hand. The Times reviewer noted on 10 September 1983 at the work’s Prom Premiere the day before that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Howard Williams ‘met the rising tides of complexity with impressive staunchness’.

The Clarinet Concerto No. 2 was composed in 1975. It was written ‘in homage to the virtuosity and artistry of Alan Hacker’. The work is scored for brass, percussion and strings. Apart from the soloist, there is no woodwind. The work was premiered by Janet Hilton and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra under Norman Del Mar in 1977.

One criticism levelled at this Concerto needs to be addressed. AW writing in The Gramophone (January 1985) suggests that ‘one fears that the soloist may be reduced to the role of a mere bystander by the sheer power of the orchestration and the urgency of the orchestral debate’. In defence, the composer has reminded me that the character of the work pitches elemental forces of nature against the fragile, and sometimes fearful, near madness of John Ruskin. Readers will recall that the great Victorian polymath owned Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water. It is well known that Ruskin was beset by phobias which sometimes occurred as he walked the fells. In swirling mists, he would imagine that he was beset by ‘dragons bent on his destruction’. It is this struggle between these horrors and the tranquillity of the lakeside that infuses the Clarinet Concerto with its intensity, drama and ultimate repose. Sometimes it seems that even the soloist may lose their sanity. Quite deliberately, then, the clarinettist is occasionally nearly submerged.

This must be one of the most demanding clarinet concertos in the repertoire: it is certainly one of the best. Alan Hacker is never fazed by problems of projection in this recording. The balance of musical dynamics is critical in this work. Cowie has told me that he spends more time crafting them [dynamics] than any other aspect of the composition. The effect of this labour is self-evident to the listener.

The excellent text written by Andrew Burn for the original Hyperion LP has not been included in the liner notes. I understand that this was for copyright reasons, but it seems to me a significant omission. There is little technical, historical or analytical information given in the new notes about either work. I was fortunate to have a scan of the rear cover of the LP so was able to consult this. Apart from that, the liner notes are excellent, with a stunning painting by Heather Cowie entitled ‘Ocean Harmony’. Interestingly, Edward Cowie painted the sleeve of the original LP. There is also an essay by the composer, ‘34 Years On’ (how time flies) in which Cowie considers his response and recalls his reaction to both works. There is John Eveleigh’s excellent drawing of the composer writing his Concerto for Orchestra, and an evocative photo of Cowie on the shores of Morecambe Bay in 1985. How we looked in those days! A short appreciative note by the conductor Howard Williams and a good biography of the composer conclude this insert.

The performance of both these works are first-rate. Age has not dimmed their power and impact. The recording engineers have done an excellent job making the Hyperion recording pristine again. All the overlapping textures and ‘structural layering’ of both works are always clear and focused. The soloist, the orchestra and the conductor have done a splendid job in keeping all these interlocking musical events in equilibrium.

This amazing CD presents music that is in the ‘premier division’. Edward Cowie’s work is required listening for all enthusiasts of 20th century British Music. The Concerto for Orchestra takes its honourable place in a trajectory from Paul Hindemith to André Previn, by way of major examples by Béla Bartók, Roberto Gerhard and Michael Tippett. I was delighted to catch up with this work: I have not heard it since the Prom Premiere at the Albert Hall half a lifetime ago.

John France
 



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