Frederic Cowen Orchestral Works

March 4, 2018

cowen marco polo 001

A newly discovered composer I quickly found that Cowen was a bright spot in my day with his light and tonal material. He was born in Jamaica in 1852 and he proved very early on that he was a child prodigy having done an operetta at the age of 8. At 14 he wrote an Overture in D Minor performed by the Alfred Mellon Promenade Orchestra. It was the 3rd Symphony ‘Scandinavian’ premiered in 1880, performed on this CD that vaulted him into prominence for well over a decade. He married in 1905 to a woman 30 years younger than he but it proved to be no problem although she outlived him by 36 years. During the next 25 years is when he did the majority of his works including the other two works on this CD The Butterfly’s Ball and  Indian Rhapsody. 

The Butterfly’s Ball (1901), a concert overture, tells a lovely little story about butterflies and there flitting and waltzing to the music. This a bright cheery overture for the first part , switching to some sort of danger music until it segues back to a passage of urgency. This continues until the romantic strings call for no danger of predators and a calming of the wind only a fast allegro leading to a rousing conclusion. A well done piece as is the second overture Indian Rhapsody (1903). The flavor of India is apparent early in the score with fast urgent passages until a solo andante violin emerges followed by a continuing of the non Indian melody. It is quiet and romantic. A very quiet melody emerges from the bassoon followed by reeds with soft harp in the background for harmony. The strings emerge quietly and then become more forceful until they become tranquil. A pause and then the strings are off again on another staccato type melody. It is first exchanged by the woodwinds until the strings become front and center singing brightly. If one listens carefully one can hear a similarity to some passages in the The Butterfly’s Ball. The work ends on a sense of driving playing from the strings and the rest of the orchestra. A well played piece that was somewhat difficult from the Czechoslovak Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper.

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor ‘Scandinavian’ (1880) begins with a powerful melody that dominates the first movement and it is shared by all sections of the orchestra, the prevailing section being the strings followed by the woodwinds. The timpani signals the end of the movement and the mood of the second movement completely changes. It is the only movement with a title ” A Summer Evening on the Fjord.” As the title indicates this is a quiet and tranquil movement with no dominate melody. This is  followed by a Scherzo with the primary work being done by the strings.  There is a melody but nothing like the tune in the first movement. The fourth movement returns to the first movement with it’s infectious melody, passed around from section to section until it  settles with the strings.

As I previously mentioned the CD case was broken (crushed), no liner notes, and poor copying of the artwork. However, the sound of the CD, the conducting of Adrian Leaper, the playing of the Czech Orchestra, and the selection of the works for the CD were all outstanding. I was introduced to Cowen and am looking forward to hearing more, although this recording is pretty much it. While he was extremely popular during his lifetime he is pretty obscure. Let Naxos that you want more. He has written other symphonies and many concert overture pieces.



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