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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, UK
MÉTIER MSV28619 [69:40]

Anything played by ambassador for the violin Peter Sheppard Skærved has to be worth a listen. Peter has a long-established working relationship with Edward Cowie, and with John France’s fulsome and detailed review also pointing me in the direction of this CD I had no qualms about taking the plunge.

I have to admit that, despite my interest in new music, it has taken a period of guilty prevarication before embarking on the writing of a review for this release. It is of course wrong to heap any kind of expectations on a world première, but I had, no doubt in part subconsciously, been eager for something that might take my listening in a different direction. With the shadow of Messiaen looming over any composer who tackles works based on birdsong there has to be an element of reinvention and an individualistic approach going on, and this is indeed the case here. My initial, superficial disappointment was that this exploration of the music/natural world interaction seemed all too often to resort to, maybe even revert to the gestures and tropes of ‘modern music’ that we became all too familiar with in the last century. Is this a jaded bias on my part? something that is inevitably subjective. Does the stretching of boundaries always have to look forward? Even after many weeks of listening this for me is music that intrigues but doesn’t really transport - it impresses and fascinates, but only sporadically creates emotional connections. I don’t expect an ‘easy ride’ when it comes to new music, but found it harder than expected to orientate myself between ‘portraits of nature’ whose windows were hampering the view through too thick a filter, and music that, unlike Janáček’s Barn Owl, didn’t seem to take off with a strong enough character of its own to function with unassailable durability beyond its avian associations.

Composed during the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions of 2020 and 2021, this was a period in which the sounds and sights of nature were brought into sharp relief. Reduced noise and general human activity added to a sharpening of the senses that isolation and outside walks brought about, and Edward Cowie was able to make the most of his environment of South Cumbria, “one of the most spectacularly diverse, mercurial, majestic and magical habitats in the United Kingdom.” The composer writes in detail about aspects of his compositional process, abstracting it to early attempts in “drawing sounds from nature” and extrapolating this towards his perception of things in their natural setting, in contrast to Messiaen’s approach of a “‘music of nature’ fired by his own experience and theory of music.” Cowie doesn’t harmonise birdsong, and his approach to the song or sounds of each bird focus into “a tiny sonic icon”, something initially almost more symbolic than literal. There are some birds that are given a more extended ‘solo’ such as the Song Thrush, and to my ears, thirsting for the least filtered qualities from nature, these are the more effective movements. The thrill of an invisible Skylark, emerging somewhere high in the air, is another movement that stands out for me. Atmospheric darkness laid down so beautifully by pianist Roderick Chadwick contrasts with the miniature, muted voice of the Wren, and counterpoints the more ebullient Bullfinch with dark earth and wind in the branches…

As ever with these things, shortcomings in appreciation are to be found in a lack with the reviewer rather than in the actual music. This is a set of pieces you need to spend time with, to hear more than once and to allow your mind to make the connections built into the score; inhabiting and absorbing the composer’s idiom, and indeed his environment. Living with this recording I have come to value its unsentimental view on nature. Cowie doesn’t anthropomorphise his birds or include extraneous effects, and while this isn’t ‘easy listening’ it doesn’t lack in moments of beauty and lyricism or even, for want of a cliché, poetic expression. While each bird is given a relatively brief and compact timespan, none of these movements is an aphoristic miniature, and there is always depth and substance in each treatment. Clichéd is one thing Cowie’s music is not, and you may want to cast your net wider to hear his Concertos (review) or his Choral Works (review) to be able to come back to these Bird Portraits and get even more out of them.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: John France

Mute Swan [2:08]
Kingfisher [2:37]
Great Crested Grebe [3:15]
Dipper [3:33]
Bittern [2:14]
Coot [1:36]
Barn Owl [2:20]
Pheasant [1:55]
Rook [2:37]
Magpie [3:01]
Starling [2:45]
Skylark [3:52]
Tawny Owl [3:41]
Green Woodpecker [2:16]
Song Thrush [3:33]
Wren [5:31]
Bullfinch [2:05]
Wood Warbler [3:07]
Curlew [3:16]
Cormorant [3:18]
Osprey [3:21]
Arctic Terns [2:11]
Puffins [1:36]
Great Northern Diver [3:40]

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