Peter Sheppard Skærved violin
Roderick Chadwick piano

métier  msv 28619

Edward Cowie’s Bird Portraits is virtually unique. Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux comes nearest, but in his extensive programme note, Cowie stresses the difference between his and Messiaen’s compositional technique. Messiaen ‘took music to nature’ while ‘I take nature to music’. As a result, Messiaen moulds his birdsongs according to his wide musical background, while Cowie strives to depict the birdsongs as they really are, and they do often stand out with remarkable clarity.  Bird Portraits includes the calls of twenty-four different birds. To my surprise, I was able to find recordings and films of all twenty-four on the internet. 

The twenty-four are arranged in four groups of six each: water birds like Mute Swan or Bittern, birds of the fields, Magpie or Skylark, woodland or garden birds, Wren or Bullfinch and to conclude, birds of the sea or shore like Curlew or Puffins.

Messiaen’s music is for piano solo but Cowie writes for piano and violin in this work. In the accompanying notes, both performers write about their experiences of preparing the music. All the pieces are miniatures ranging from the Coot at less than a minute and a half, to the longest, also the smallest bird, the Wren, at five and a half minutes. 

The music ranges from quite atonal to more tuneful. This is because some of the birdsongs are themselves more tuneful than others. Pianist Roderick Chadwick is often there to provide atmospheric colour with music painting of the surroundings, although in the Song Thrush he makes the piano sing too. 

Peter Sheppard Skærved, often towards the end of the individual piece, creates astonishingly detailed renditions of the bird calls. These come across like dazzling cadenzas and include some real eye-popping violin virtuosity. The songs of the birds range from the almost operatic voices of the thrush or the wren to the caw or croak of the rook. Skærved astonished me as he made his violin tweet, trill, swoop and so much more, and in such intricate detail. 

Cowie includes momentary musical quotations. I picked up Mussorgsky and to my surprise in the Magpie, there is a short but outstanding fragment of Bizet’s ‘Toreador en garde!’ from Carmen. How did that get there? Was it ‘stolen’? After all, the magpie is renowned for its thieving!

Review by Alan Cooper