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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 November 1983 (Concerto for Orchestra) and January 1984 (Clarinet Concerto) in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
Originally released in 1984 on Hyperion LP – A 66120
MÉTIER MSV92108 [44:38]

There are few more rewarding moments in life than learning about the impending reissue on CD of a long-treasured LP recording one assumed had disappeared for good. More than a decade has elapsed since I last felt this ‘buzz’ – on that occasion it was the emergence (on the short-lived Explore label) of the old Decca Headline recording of Roberto Gerhard’s Camus oratorio The Plague with Alec McCowen’s pitch-perfect narration and the choral and orchestral forces of the Washington National Symphony under Antal Doráti. However, wait long enough and like the proverbial buses two such reissues come along at once, both examples of Hyperion’s early forays into the realms of contemporary British music. I will submit my review of Malcolm Lipkin’s brilliant ensemble work Clifford’s Tower (and its equally pungent couplings) in due course, but for now I wish to enthusiastically recommend this superb disc of two exhilarating concertos from the pen of the somewhat underappreciated polymath Edward Cowie.

John France has already contributed a detailed and profoundly insightful review of this reissue and I absolutely share his enthusiasm (and nostalgia) for these works. Indeed I vividly recall the time when the original LP appeared; I bought it on impulse (inevitably from Gibb’s Bookshop in Manchester) during the week of its release – the deal clinched by the reference to the North Lancashire coastal village of Hest Bank in Andrew Burn’s notes. I had enjoyed (and endured) a number of camping holidays at this location (on one such trip I experienced the elation of my one and only decent win at a local betting shop; a temporary joy that was abruptly curtailed that same evening by the misery of England’s elimination from the 1982 World Cup) and was consistently entranced by the sheer oddness of the local landscape, the quality of the light (unusual for the north-west coast) and the seemingly infinite distance to the ‘end’ of the beach and the start of the sea. The uncanny ability of certain composers to make sonic ‘flesh’ of topography, climate or light remains a miracle to me; and to my ears Cowie’s Concerto for Orchestra was easily the most vivid example in contemporary music I had encountered at that time.

Nor have the passing years diluted its impact – quite the opposite. The patterns of notes and Cowie’s intuitive deployment of instrumental textures do ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ in evoking the teeming life of the Irish Sea, the intermittent and sudden gusts of wind, the reflection of sunlight on rippling waves, the overwhelming presence of abundant avian activity which suddenly yields to silence. Of course the listener might already be aware that music may be ‘inspired by’ this or ‘about’ that, but I would contend most assertively that these particular sounds superbly convey the drama, mystery and occasional hyperactivity of this stretch of the north Lancashire coastline. Cowie’s polymathy includes painting and his personal brand of ‘water music’ (the concerto’s original subtitle was ‘Studies in the Movement of Water’) has both visual and tactile dimensions. Discreet yet virile brass chords evoke dark clouds and ominous waves in the far distance; occasional shafts of sunlight bouncing off the surface are captured by the ripplings of what might be dubbed a ‘gamelan continuo’ comprising harp, celesta, tuned percussion, harpsichord and a subtly demanding piano part (apparently played here by Martin Roscoe). The backcloths suggested by Cowie’s atmospheric string writing become increasingly apparent as the work proceeds. There seem to be hints of Debussy’s La Mer in the orchestration but I rather suspect this has more to do with the listener’s subconscious experience than the composer’s specific intention. In the original note Andrew Burn referred to Cowie’s skill in ‘layering’ the music in strata which correspond to the sections of his orchestra, a strategy which has the effect of suggesting the infinite variation of community in the depths, similarly characterised in a more recent marine masterpiece, John Luther Adams’ mighty Become Ocean. Stylistically though, what has struck me afresh about this concerto (I would have been completely unaware of it nearly 40 years ago) is that it seems uncannily to combine the sonic preoccupations of both Peter Maxwell Davies (notably the ’sea music’ of the first two symphonies – both produced during the five years preceding this concerto) and Harrison Birtwistle (Cowie’s ‘stratification’ techniques anticipate the Earth Dances of 1986). I would go as far as suggesting that Cowie’s economy of expression (not a note is wasted) trumps all three of these more renowned works from the same period.

If one journeys in a vaguely north-easterly direction from Morecambe Bay one will eventually arrive at Coniston Water and Brantwood, once the home of the artist John Ruskin whose neurotic spirit inhabits Cowie’s equally spellbinding Clarinet Concerto No 2, completed not long before the Concerto for Orchestra. After a terse orchestral opening – a three-note repeated timpani figure amid spiky muted brass – a perky clarinet line emerges; it seems playful enough on the surface but Cowie’s agenda here is more ambiguous. This work incorporates a psychological element which mirrors Ruskin’s disturbed personality (one might characterise it as bipolar disorder these days, although there appear to have been several other worrying dimensions to Ruskin’s mental well-being). The concerto appears to be in a state of unresolved flux for the most part, pitting an agitated, sometimes histrionic, occasionally lyrical solo part – magnificently and mercurially projected by the late Alan Hacker – against an orchestral backdrop which seems to allude to the brooding Lakeland landscape. Cowie’s slower music (eg from 6:20, 10:13) hints at a lyricism and calm which will emerge in the cathartic and increasingly rapt final third of the work. During this concluding segment brief, intricately spun climaxes (at 13:02 and more obviously from 15:03 and 17:40) suggest Ruskin’s descent into momentary madness before a hard-won calm resolves this wonderful piece.

One would never guess that the recording was made nearly four decades ago. I still have a cassette of the original LP but Métier’s remastering clarifies Cowie’s extraordinarily detailed orchestral writing in such a way as to make the tape redundant. Both performances are outstanding; an enthusiastic RLPO are utterly alert to Howard Williams’ sensitive direction, while Hacker is characteristically magnificent in the Clarinet Concerto, thrilling and hypnotic by turn. Métier’s booklet note is limited to biography and anecdote; interesting though that is Andrew Burn’s note on the original LP is far more helpful in terms of musicological commentary. In any case Cowie’s radiant music speaks most eloquently for itself.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: John France

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