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Edward COWIE (b. 1943)
Bird Portraits (2020/21)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin)
Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. 17-18 May 2021, St George’s Headstone, Pinner View, Harrow, Middlesex.
MÉTIER MSV28619 [69:40]

The genesis of Edward Cowie’s’ Bird Portraits was the enforced isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the CD liner notes, the composer reminds the reader that all “concerts, master classes, workshops and recordings were cancelled.” Limitations were placed on travel for anything but essential reasons. Luckily Edward and his artist wife Heather live in a stunning part of the country. The “permitted” exercise took them to the wonderland of the neighbourhood of Morecambe Bay. Cowie writes: “…only a short walk – less than 10 minutes in any direction, we could explore wild woodland, wetland and pastures. The birdsong, in the first spring of Covid, was stunning - the more so because we didn’t meet anyone else on our walks – the roads were almost silent, and the skies were devoid of vapour trails.”  Hearing and seeing these birds inspired Cowie to compose the present piece. He explains, “slowly and with a delicious inexorability, a ‘procession’ (or should I say, ‘fly-past’), of British birds came to fill my head with fresh and refreshing inspiration.”

The resulting work consists of 24 Bird Portraits. Not all were seen in Morecambe Bay: the composer has had a lifelong interest in our feathered friends and has tracked them down in many UK locations. Over Cowie’s career, a quarter of his musical compositions allude to birds - either implicitly or explicitly.

I acknowledge the aid and assistance of the excellent (if sometimes philosophical) liner notes in completing my review of this CD. I have also had personal communication with Edward Cowie. The booklet opens with a preface by him, followed by Peter Sheppard Skærved’s reflections “On playing Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’ – a view from the violin” which may be a little esoteric in places (number symbolism etc.) but offers several clues to enjoying this music. There are some “Scattered Thoughts” by the present pianist Roderick Chadwick, which I found useful. Included are considerable biographies of the soloists and the composer. Several illustrations complement the CD and include two of Cowie “in the field.”  Of significant importance is a side-by-side photograph of the composer’s Preparatory Drawing, and the resultant score. The former contains sketches of a Skylark at rest and in-flight, Stonehenge, and various bits of notated music. I just wish the detail had been clearer, even under the magnifying glass. The enigmatic painting on the CD cover is Spring Song by Heather Cowie.

In his commentary on Bird Portraits, Skærved gives a hermeneutic for approaching this massive work. The key is the number 24. Think of Bach’s two books of Preludes, Paganini’s 24 Capricci and Pierre Rode’s Vingt-Quatre Caprices. Cowie himself had used twenty-four movements in his Birdsong Bagatelles (2004), and other examples. There is often a tendency for musicians to equate the number twenty-four with the totality of major and minor keys, and their relationship. That said, key affiliation does not seem to be a factor here.

Skærved notes that Cowie has divided the movements of Bird Portraits into four books of six: (4 x 6=24), and the reason is easy to see. Looking at the titles discovers four avian habitats: Water, Field, Wood/Garden and Sea. There is the notion of Wet and Dry too. The waters, it can be seen, surround the land “like the encircling sea of the ancient and medieval worlds, or Tolkien’s, Ekkaia.” Further allusions could be drawn, but this combination is sufficient to give a grip on the progress of the Portraits. I would suggest listening to one group of six at a time. Personally, I would explore these birds in the order that Cowie has presented them in his score but I see no harm in listening to any “complete” habitat group. A table of movements thus categorised is shown below:

Water/Wet Field/Dry Garden/Dry Sea/Wet
Mute Swan Barn Owl Tawny Owl Curlew
Kingfisher Pheasant Green Woodpecker Cormorant
Great Crested Grebe Rook Song Thrush Osprey
Dipper Magpie Wren Arctic Terns
Bittern Starling Bullfinch Puffins
Coot Skylark Wood Warbler Great Northern Diver

I am not convinced that the general listener to Bird Portraits will be aware of the intellectual superstructure of this music. A cursory hearing will reveal it to be all about birds; the relationship to their unique landscape may be a bit harder to divine, but this is no problem, as the work can be enjoyed “absolutely.”

I do not intend to discuss each movement for this review. I think that to do so with any sense of perspective would require sight of the score, as well as a study of the composer’s preparatory sketches. Perhaps these will be published, or even be uploaded to his webpage.

Pianist Roderick Chadwick has given some wise pointers towards appreciation of Bird Portraits. I agree with him that each of these would be “musically satisfying” without the bird being evoked. Yet, the title does give the listener a mental hook on which to hang the musical progress of each movement. I admit to looking up the Great Northern Diver in my bird book to remind me of what they look like. Also, knowing Morecambe Bay, the Northumberland Coast and the Farne Islands, seemed to make this music closer to my heart. Another essential reminder from Chadwick is that, as a rule of thumb, the violin is the bird, the piano “portrays” the landscape.

There is a danger of assuming that Edward Cowie’s Bird Portraits follow directly in the footsteps of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d'oiseaux. The composer, however, writes “apart from sharing a deep interest in ornithology with that great man, my approach to music inspired by birds is substantially different from his.” Using his account, it is possible to drill down deeper into the difference between these two great works. The fundamental distinction is that Cowie believes that Messiaen took his “Music to Nature.” There were the jotted down bird calls, but to this the Frenchman brought his own theories of rhythm, Indian ragas, and his “idiosyncratic harmonic procedure – even to the harmonisation of birdsong.”  In other words, Messiaen “applied his techniques in the registration and translation of natural sounds to his own musical settings.”

Cowie claims that he writes the other way round; he takes “Nature to Music.” It goes back to the composer’s younger days. Before he could write down music, he was able to “draw sounds from nature.” Thus, his sketches for these short Portraits play an important part in the development of his piece. He explains that four notebooks are used in the “field”: one dealing with the “shape” or “form” of what is round about him, the second to record colours; those that blend and clash. Notebook three is devoted to representational drawing, and may include birds, insects, and flowers. The final jotter is where Cowie records the musical notation of what he hears but the interesting statement that he makes is that many of these “being in the form of a translation or relocation of those natural sound-sources [are made] into a potentially musical outcome.” Surely this is what he suggests Messiaen did - recreating the sounds in his own sophisticated compositional image? Cowie told me that he did not use a tape recorder in the field; Messiaen did but did not make this information public.

Another difference that Cowie has promulgated is “in almost all cases of (quasi)-quotation of an actual birdsong, I have adhered to the actual pitch and shape of that song.”  He writes that Messiaen “often took [transposed] many songs down at least one or two octaves and ‘harmonised’ them too.” Yet the following sentence in Cowie’s notes reveals that “the patterner in me takes centre stage in musically (my italics) portraying the drama of these birds in a state of song.” This suggests that musical and artistic aesthetic trumps literal transcription. Indeed, that is what Messiaen was doing too.

A major difference is that Messiaen brought his deep Catholic faith to bear on his Catalogue d'oiseaux: I am guessing that Cowie develops his Portraits from a more secular point of view. That said, never for one moment is this piece devoid of a sense of the numinous. In fact, that is its supreme achievement.
Resultantly, I do not think Edward Cowie’s approach to birdsong is as far removed from Messiaen’s as he suggests.

Finally, what does this music sound like? The adage attributed to Elvis Presley is called to mind: “It don’t sound like nobody.” Not altogether true, however. Clearly Cowie’s music teachers, Alexander Goehr, Michael Tippet and Witold Lutoslawski have made an impression. The impact of nature and Cowie’s response to the specific birds and their habitat have created a musical language that is unique. Like all great composers, Edward Cowie has managed to create a synthesis of his influences, and has added to them, and pushed well beyond. As noted above, no one can approach this CD without at least having Messiaen at the back of their mind (assuming they know his music).

The sonic impact of this work is characterised by a continuum between dissonance (say, Cormorant) and concord (say, Dipper).

The playing by both partners of this violin/piano duo is revelatory. Engineer Jonathan Haskell has provided the wonderfully sensitive and always vivid recording.

The advertising blurb for this CD sums up the total experience better than I can: “Cowie has drawn even closer to composing music that not so much imitates nature, but that – after much study and extensive field-work – has led to contemporary music with highly original treatments of the relationships between the bird singers and where and how they sing.”

I look forward to Edward Cowie’s Where Song was Born for Flute(s) and piano. This work was written after Bird Portraits and was inspired by Australian Birds. That said, as I have never been to the Antipodes, it may be harder for me to relate to these creatures. It has been recorded for Métier Divine Arts and is due for release during January 2022.

John France


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