Edward Cowie (b. 1943)
24 Preludes for piano (2005-2007)
Philip Mead (piano)
rec. 2007, The Weston Auditorium, University of Hertfordshire, UK
MÉTIER MSV28625 
This splendid disc is a reissue of a rare recording that the University of Hertfordshire Recordings released in 2008. I am beholden to the excellent booklet notes and personal communication with the composer in preparing this review. The 24 Preludes, composed between late 2005 and mid-2007, are dedicated to the present soloist, Philip Mead, who gives a stunning performance.
The original liner notes give a good basis for appreciating the Preludes. Cowie explains that he has travelled extensively, and that his “memories of landscapes and places in some of those far-flung habitats are as strong as ever, no matter how long ago they were first visited.” He also says that he has “nearly always written music that derives from a direct “on site” interaction with wild places; the voices of the natural world.” The sequence of Preludes recalls twenty four “distinctive yet sometimes related and interconnected locations”.
No listener will need to be reminded of historical precedents for this procedure. Most obvious is Bach’s Das Wohltemperirte Klavier. Equally relevant to this exploration are Chopin’s Preludes, and there are Messiaen’s early Preludes, often forgotten in any consideration of his music. Most pertinent is Debussy’s cycle; he gave his Preludes titles after he had written them. With Cowie, the imagery came first.
There is another aspect to this massive composition. Surprisingly for a contemporary composer, Cowie took the 24 major and minor keys of the well-tempered system as a structural basis for the music. I have no access to the score and do not have perfect pitch, so I wondered if each prelude was written using the precise key signature or if each note had the relevant accidental added. Cowie assures me that “all the key signatures were written as Bach did”. The progress of the key sequence is C major/minor then the dominant G major/minor and so on. Bach began in C major/minor and then moved up a semitone to C# major/minor etc. Cowie’s structure, then, is a fusion of key relationships.
The listener must be aware that these are not character sketches, where the composer wrote the music and then dreamed up a catchy and commercial title. Here, each place/event is the fundamental inspiration for the genesis and development of the prelude. To understand this methodology, it is essential to learn that Cowie does his preparatory work with four notebooks. The first one records “shape” or “form” of what is round about him, the second puts down colours: those that blend and clash. Notebook three is devoted to representational drawing, and may include landscapes, flora and fauna. The final jotter is where Cowie records the musical notation of what he hears. Using his collection of notebooks, Cowie then creates what is effectively a work of art, combining the various elements of his research. Several of these are included in the CD booklet. It is from these that he completes his score.
Philip Mead has categorised Cowie’s Preludes as being neo-baroque but belonging wholly to the 21st century and balancing a “stark tonality” with a “non-tonal flavour”. He considers that Bach is the main inspiration for technique: “There is an accent on polyphony, lithe, contrapuntal textures, sometimes even imitation, in strict 2-part writing.” Several times the music is referred to as improvisatory. I asked Edward Cowie about this. He explained that they were all “strictly notated” but allowed a “regular scattering of rubato”, a method of playing that allows for “subtle rhythmic manipulation and nuance”. In other words, the performer may “stretch certain beats, measures, or phrases and compact others”.
I wondered if the composer imagined that the entire cycle would be played at a single sitting. He assured me that he “always imagined they’d be played in whatever grouping the performer likes. Performed in pairs […] like Scarlatti […] or perhaps a group of four with one each from the elements”. On the other hand, like Bach’s and Debussy’s, these Preludes are “like a series of linked parts to a greater whole”. Hearing the cycle complete is a valid option.
To help listening, the Preludes are assembled into four books: Water, Air, Earth and Fire. This elemental structure gives the music a kind of alchemical validity. The geographical reach of this music is impressive. From the opening evocation of O Brook (Devon) to the Blast Furnaces at Port Kembla Steel Works (Australia) and from St Maxime Beach, Provence to the New Year Fireworks, Kassel, Germany, the imagery is striking.
I listened to these pieces a book at a time. And then had a short break. In future, I will cheat and pick out some of the places that I know and love, such as Glencoe, Loch Carron, Boscastle and Rosedale in Yorkshire. But then, it is possible to extend one’s geographical reach to the Tennessee River, Lake Eacham in Queensland and to 35,000 feet inspired by a view from the flight deck of a jet airliner high above the Straits of Java. I noticed one lovely touch: the cycle opens and closes with an evocation of Glorious Devon. What could be more appropriate?
I have come to expect superlative liner notes with Edward Cowie’s recordings. This disc is no exception. There is the composer’s considerable essay, and some important “Personal Thoughts on the Cowie Preludes” by the soloist, Philip Mead. Of interest are the biographical notes on the composer and the pianist. The added value of the booklet is the artwork. There are four examples of Cowie’s “pre-compositional sketches” for these Preludes. It is safe to say that these are works of art. They feature representational images of the locations, various abstracted designs and patterns, fugitive text and interpolated notational extracts. There is also a photo of a selection of his notebooks. The cover features a remarkable painting by Heather Cowie, Cancleave – Sea Mist, in oil and cold wax medium on paper. All this material contributes to a satisfying and rewarding experience. For details of the composer’s biography and achievement, please see his website.
Philip Mead gives an ideal, succinct summary of this cycle of Preludes: “One can look for similarities with its predecessors, but this seems to me a fruitless task as these works inhabit a wholly original world which only Cowie could create. Original, yet omnipresent, tonal, yet non tonal, full of movement yet also sometimes of stasis.” They are a splendid addition to the cycles of Preludes of Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Messiaen.
Book 1 – Water
I. O Brook (Devon, England) in C major
II. Kiama Blowhole (NSW, Australia) in C minor
III. Cancleave (Cornwall, England, sea mists) in G major
IV. River Dronne (Dordogne, France) in G minor
V. St Maxime Beach (Provence, France) in D major
VI. Tennessee River (Tennessee, USA) in D minor
Book 2 – Air
I. Boscastle (Cornwall, England, gale) in A major
II. Hay Plains Twisters (NSW, Australia) in A minor
III. 35,000 feet (Straits of Java) in E major
IV. Tapada (Portugal, thermal raptors) in E minor
V. Lake Eacham (Queensland, Australia, night breezes) in B major
VI. Dartington Gardens (Devon, England, autumn leaf-fall) in B minor
Book 3 – Earth
I. Uluru (Australia) in F sharp major
II. Crackington Haven (Cornwall, England) in F sharp minor
III. Rosedale (Yorkshire, England) in C sharp major
IV. Glencoe (Scotland) in C sharp minor
V. Brecon Beacons (Wales) in A flat major
VI. Shenandoah Valley (Virginia, USA) in A flat minor
Book 4 – Fire
I. Sunrise (Loch Carron, Scotland) in E flat major
II. Bush Fires (Bluewater, N. Queensland, Australia) in E flat minor
III. Home Fire (Garlinge Green, Kent, England) in B flat major
IV. Blast Furnaces at Port Kembla Steel Works (Australia) in B flat minor
V. New Year Fireworks (Kassel, Germany) in F major
VI. Sunset (Dartmoor, Devon, England) in F minor