Edward Cowie String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: Edward Cowie
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 3 (In Flight Music), 4 & 5 (Birdsong Bagatelles)
PERFORMER: Kreutzer Quartet


A picture of Edward Cowie at work composing outdoors in Australia, sporting a backwards baseball cap, opens the booklet for this fine disc of his String Quartets Nos 3-5. And the photo is illustrative of the British composer in general: his creative process invariably begins outside, observing the sounds, sights and movement of the natural (and modern) world. The Third and Fifth Quartets, written nearly 20 years apart, are cases in point. In Flight Music (No. 3) has movements titled ‘Hang-gliders’, ‘Vapour Trails, ‘Hummingbird Hawk Moths’ and ‘Raptor Thermals – mainly Eagles’, while Birdsong Bagatelles (No. 5) features 24 miniatures portraying different British birds.

The Kreutzer Quartet bring a transparent, wiry sound to In Flight Music, filling its carefully-wrought textures with light. The four-movement piece is modelled on Haydn, and the four musicians play with an elegant precision that wouldn’t go amiss in his quartets either. It pays dividends, too, in the sharply-etched sketches of the Birdsong Bagatelles. Unlike Messiaen, Cowie rarely quotes birdsong here – cuckoo calls aside – and instead explores the birds in their landscapes. I could imagine the kingfisher hovering over water, insects bustling nearby, in its portrait; or the noisy chattering and bluster of the magpie.

The Fourth Quartet is more abstract, thornier stuff – a moving memorial to friends and family who Cowie has lost. Cast as one movement ‘played continuously as a river flows’, it makes a heartfelt centrepiece to a worthwhile recording.


Rebecca Franks