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Ease and warmth

Music by Billy Cowie,
reviewed by RON BIERMAN

Divas    divas 12

Romances and Toccatas for Saxophone. Music - Billy Cowie. Saxophone - Gerard McChrystal. © 1999 Divas Records

Billy Cowie is a busy man -- a composer, writer, choreographer, and film maker -- when not teaching at the University of Brighton. He's also found time to be the pianist on this unusual release, which includes seventeen of his short works for saxophone and twelve equally short preludes for piano. Saxophonist Gerard McChrystal is his partner in the Romances and Toccatas. McChrystal is a talented musician who has premièred concertos by numerous composers including Arnold, MacMillan and Tavener. In the album notes he says he was struck by the beauty and calm in Cowie's pieces. He plays them with an ease and warmth that matches Cowie's conservative and melodic style.

I play the sax myself and sometimes feel it is out of place in classical music, but it does fit here. McChrystal performs the Romances and Toccatas on a soprano, the member of the family closest in timbre to a 'classical' sound. His instrument might at times even be mistaken for a vigorous english horn.

The eight romances for saxophone and piano are indeed romantic. They are also simple in construction. None takes much longer than a minute to play. Number 3 is fairly typical [listen -- track 3, 0:00-1:11]. The romances will be overly brief for some and wouldn't be entirely out of place at a New Age concert, but I'll go along with McChrystal's description of beautiful and calm.

After an interlude for solo saxophone the piano rejoins for eight more short pieces, the toccatas of the title. Their more energetic style includes elements simultaneously reminiscent of Bach and minimalism [listen -- track 10, 0:00-1:06]. I suspect Cowie is trying to be more 'playful' in the toccatas, but they are less consistently attractive than the romances.

The preludes for piano are again concise, the longest just over two minutes. Some of them seek the calm beauty of the romances and succeed [listen -- track 24, 0:00-2:05]. About half are more vigorous. Number 11 is the most so [listen -- track 28, 0:00-0:53]. As in the Romances and Toccatas, the slower pieces are gentle and unforced while some of the faster preludes seem more self-consciously constructed and are less effective.

The total program (which it should be noted is relatively short at under 44 minutes) will appeal to those who enjoy the saxophone and music that is pleasant and sometimes affecting. Those seeking thorny depths or startling originality will be better served elsewhere.

Copyright © 16 October 2004 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA


Romances and Toccatas for Saxophone

divas 12 Stereo 43'12" 1999 Divas Records

Gerard McChrystal, soprano saxophone; Billy Cowie, piano and tape

Billy Cowie: Eight Romances for Saxophone and Piano; Saxophone Interlude; Eight Toccatas for Saxophone and Tape; Twelve Preludes for Piano


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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular series of shorter CD reviews