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Edward COWIE (b.1943)
String Quartet No.1 ‘Dungeness Nocturnes’ (1969) [14:17]
String Quartet No.2 ‘Crystal Dances’ (1977) [17:48]
GAD for solo violin (2017) [16:37]
String Quartet No.6 ‘The Four Winds’ (2012) [22:50]
Kreutzer Quartet
rec. 2017-19, All Saints’ Church, Finchley & St Michael’s Church, Highbury, London
M╔TIER MSV28603 [71:32]

The disc acts as a compliment to one on NMC of Cowie’s 3rd, 4th and 5th Quartets recorded in 2016 also by the Kreutzer Quartet - Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Milhailo Trandafilovski (violins), Clifton Harrison (viola) and Neil Heyde (cello).

At the time of composing his 1st String Quartet in 1969 the strong influence of Webern-type pointillism was fervent not only for him but also for composers of his generation. As he admits in his essay in the booklet, ‘Highly Strung music’, he was “struggling to escape the enchantment… of serialism and other purely musical forms of formalism and systematisation”. The title of this work ‘Dungeness Nocturnes’ is highly descriptive. As I recall from a bird watching trip in that rich-in-wildlife area last September, it’s quite a harsh environment in many ways, unpeopled and restricted almost to the colour of desert. Oddly enough two of Cowie’s pictures, which acted as preparatory studies for this work, show almost gaudily coloured images of boats stranded on sandbanks. Anyway the music is suitably on the edge of silence some of the time, especially in its final pages and the scurryings and snaps are certainly responses to the habitat of the area, the animals and birds which excite the musical argument and then leave it high and dry on the shingle.

In the booklet there is a photo of the composer bird watching and it is not surprising then that the natural world is a powerful inspiration for Cowie. For some time, mostly since the mid 70s he has lived and worked in North Lancashire and South Cumbria on the edge of Morecombe Bay as an Associate Professor of Composition at Lancaster University. Having lived in that area myself for fifteen years I am only too well aware of the powerful influence the landscape, tides and wildlife can have on creative artists. His ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ op 19 (1982) was described as a celebration of the North West’s landscape (from notes on the Hyperion LP by Andrew Burns)

By the time of his 2nd String Quartet Cowie, who had studied with Alexander Goehr amongst others, had disposed of serial technique and searched for a language which embraced both tonal and atonal elements, a situation begun at about the time of the 1st Quartet. So this 2nd quartet begins to move increasingly towards that new world. It is in one movement again and its dancing, scintillating textures warrant the work’s subtitle of ‘Crystal Dances’. Growing to a slowly building climax after about fifteen minutes, the music folds in upon itself with unison passages and something like a tonal ending. In preparing this review I listened again to Cowie’s ‘Gesangbuch’ of 1975-6 (Signum 331), a work for Cowie’s other favourite instrument, the human voice, or in this case many human voices. Again, as in the ‘Spring’ movement for example, the vibrancy and energy of the natural world shine through the textures. And it’s interesting that he was awarded a Livehulme Fellowship for which it was said that he ‘warns of dangers to the wild and living world through the continuing destruction of it at the hands of humanity’. But does the music really communicate to the listener these sincerely held traits?

Jumping forward in time to the 6th String Quartet we have a longer work which, being called ‘The Four Winds’, certainly inhabits a distinct ‘habitat’ – which is of course a word often used by birdwatchers. It could have been called the ‘Four Seasons’ as each movement is named after one. It starts with ‘Autumn - West Wind’, an atmospheric and ‘windy’ utterance which towards its ending uses an icy cello solo to lead us into the 2nd movement ‘Winter - North Wind’, a desolate landscape with only occasional light. Screams of wading birds cut across this barren sandscape. Various solo passages punctuate the view, as do eerie glissandi. ‘Spring –East wind’ begins with gentle downward glissandi as life flicks into being with short, spiccato articulations, some from the highest register, and trills and growling tremelandi. ‘Summer-South Wind’ opens in a hushed but unruffled manner surrounded by insect wings gently lapping the claustrophobic atmosphere. They do build periodically into something more agitated but pizzicato cello and ‘sul pont’ glissandi take charge in this peaceful and composed landscape. There is even a wondrous, steeply pitched cello melody just after halfway. The whole work is remarkably varied and imaginative and I can’t help but hear landscape in every note.

GAD is a medical condition - ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’ – from which Cowie has suffered since his teens. He was asked to write a large-scale work for solo violin for Peter Sheppard Skaerved but once underway his condition came on again. Instead of stopping he worked through it, hence, as the composer admits, the work is “autobiographical”. As laudable as that is, the question arises ‘is this a good piece and would I want to listen to it more than once’? And for me the answer is “no”. Its inevitably disjointed nature, both musical and emotional, is more than a challenge to grasp and perhaps should remain unrecorded. The argument against this is that there may be listeners who find this attitude of working through such difficulties uplifting and helpful. What I will say is that I’m sure that the composer, as he admits in his notes, could not have wished for a more committed and dramatic performance and this applies to all of the performances on this disc.

Superbly recorded with useful essays, photographs and reproductions of Cowie’s paintings for the 1st and 6th Quartets.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: John France

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