October 05, 2023


Edward Cowie: Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings. Anna Hashimoto, clarinet; Roderick Chadwick, piano. Métier. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Music Composed and Transcribed for Flute and Harp. Nicole Esposito, flute; Çağatay Akyol, harp. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     The third Bird Portraits assemblage by Edward Cowie (born 1943) is so sprawling and extensive that it does not fit on a single CD: its 89 minutes require two discs (sold at single-CD price on the Métier label). There are no fewer than 24 works, arranged into four six-piece Books, within Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings, and only one (the second in Book 1) is actually about the wood thrush. The rest deal with other birds of the Americas – the two prior collections, Bird Portraits and Where Song Was Born, focused on the avian worlds of Great Britain and Australia, respectively. In his new work as in the prior ones, Cowie is at pains to incorporate actual birdsong sounds, not flights of fancy based on them, and thus to bring listeners into close aural contact with the immense variety of sound worlds generated by birds. There is more here, too: Cowie adds to the imitative elements a variety of musical materials drawn from the same geography as the bird sounds, which means that he here includes jazz material, indigenous Native American music, and more. The result is a very long set of brief works (most in the three-to-four-minute range) in which Anna Hashimoto and Roderick Chadwick present self-contained, impressionistic-but-largely-accurate aural portraits of the sounds of the belted kingfisher, greater roadrunner, great horned owl, blue jay, mockingbird, red winged blackbird, Northern cardinal, turkey vulture, bald eagle and many others. There is nothing actually formulaic about Cowie’s portrayals of the birds, but the whole enterprise has a sameness to it that eventually becomes tedious (except perhaps for ardent bird fanciers), since the sonic compass of the two instruments remains the same throughout and the various avian portraits all proceed in more-or-less the same way for more-or-less the same duration. Listeners willing to dedicate considerable time and attention to individual elements of Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings will find surprises here and there, as in the calls of the broad-tailed and blue-throated hummingbirds, the gentle swaying of the portrayal of the yellow crowned night heron, and the chordal quietude associated with the Virginia rail. In fact, anyone inclined to listen to this music with the same attentiveness that Cowie brought to its creation will find a great deal of diversity of sound and approach within the basic similarity of timing and instrumentation. Most potential audiences, though, will have a far more casual interest than this in the material – and on that basis, this carefully made but highly rarefied bird study will prove very appealing to a very small group of listeners.

     The sonic world of an MSR Classics disc featuring Nicole Esposito and Çağatay Akyol is also a limited one that stretches through a lengthy recording (71 minutes). The delicacy of the flute-and-harp mixture on this CD is placed at the service of music that, through its association with Turkey, incorporates both Eastern and Western influences. The composers here are scarcely household names; their works reflect their time period (mostly the 20th century) as much as their geographic locations and concerns. The disc starts very well: from Adrian Shaposhnikov (1888-1967) comes an impressive three-movement Sonata for Flute and Harp that uses the instruments intelligently and expressively, offering a nearly angelic sound at times and pervasive lightness throughout. After this, Kemal Günüc (born 1961) offers Anatolian Colors: Four Small Pieces for Flute and Harp, which sometimes waft through gentle sonic eddies, sometimes are presented with stronger rhythmic emphasis than might be expected from these two instruments. The transcriptions that make up the rest of the disc are not quite at the level of the first two pieces on it. Günüc ‘s piece is followed by a work by Fikret Amirov (1922-1984), 6 Stücke für Flöte und Klavier, in a transcription by Esposito and Akyol. The comparatively strong rhythmic elements of Amirov’s six pieces show their flute-and-piano origin and do not transfer entirely successfully to flute-and-harp duet, but the expressiveness of the material comes through quite well. The gentle Wiegenlied (Lullaby), pleasantly upbeat Tanz (Dance), and sweetly pastoral In den Bergen Aserbaidschans (In the Mountains of Azerbaijan) are highlights. Next on the disc is another transcription, the short and pretty Melody by Arno Babadjanian (1921-1983); and then yet another, 10 Pieces for Flute and Piano by Assen Karastoyanov (1893-1976) transcribed by the performers. Karastoyanov’s is the most-substantial work on the disc, lasting nearly 26 minutes – but because its individual elements are short and well-contrasted, it does not feel overextended. However, the ability of the harp to underpin and emphasize the flute is less than that of the piano, and although the piece is very well played – as, indeed, are all the others on this disc – the similarities of sound between flute and harp (principally in the matter of loudness and comparative quiet) make the work less than engaging throughout. Individual movements do, however, have considerable charm, especially the bustling Spinstress, the well-interwoven Ratchenitza, and the sweetly somnolent Lullaby. The CD concludes with Three Old Istanbul Songs, one each by Santuri Etham Bey (1855-1926) and Kevser Hanim (1880-1950) and one anonymous, all serving to give listeners a greater focus on the Turkish elements of the disc than most of the other works provide. The pleasant mingling of flute and harp throughout the CD gives these unfamiliar offerings a pleasant, easy-to-hear sound that results in most of the material sounding more like background music than like anything commanding foreground attention or attentiveness. The very last of the 27 tracks on the disc, though – the song by Hanim, Nihavent Longa – provides a quick, bright and enthusiastic conclusion to the recording.

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