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Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928)
Memento Vitae (1969-70)
Helios (1994)
Night Music (1969)
The Seasons (1988)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Kraemer
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jac van Steen
Recorded at City Hall, Glasgow 13-14 May 1998 (Helios, Night Music, The Seasons) and Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London 29 May 1998 (Memento Vitae) DDD
NMC Ancora+ NMC D074 [79:34]


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This is a disc that represents an important new departure for the NMC label into the sphere of reissues. The initial delving into the catalogues of Unicorn-Kanchana and the much lamented Collins Classics is already looking as if it could pay significant dividends with re-releases of Hugh Wood, John Buller and David Matthews already available. These are soon to be followed by Nigel Osborne, John Casken, Oliver Knussen (the original Unicorn-Kanchana recording of his Third Symphony) and the Maconchy Quartets amongst others.

Three of the works on this valuable Musgrave release were previously available on Collins Classics although the disc has been generously topped up with Memento Vitae, Concerto in Homage to Beethoven, recorded within weeks of the other works but not previously released. The admirable playing time of 79:34 is all the more pleasing given that all of the Ancora discs will be available at mid-price.

All four of the works on the disc demonstrate two significant traits in Musgrave’s fertile output over the years, namely an inherent sense of drama that can surface both musically and visually (as in Helios where the shape of a chariot is quite literally formed by the players) and in her terrifically acute ear for instrumental colour and texture, the result of which can be both beguiling and immensely exciting. Written to commemorate the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth in 1970, the drama in Memento Vitae is created by the tension of past and present as well as an underlying "structure" of conflict between the tonalities of F major and C sharp as drawn from the final movement of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. At surface level, and more obvious to the listener, are the references woven into the music from a number of Beethoven works. Amongst them is the Agnus Dei from Missa Solemnis, an excerpt from the music preceding the storm in the Pastoral Symphony which in turn leads into Musgrave’s own storm that forms the violent heart of the piece and perhaps most memorably the chorale from the String Quartet Op. 132. The latter appears through the clouded textures on four solo strings as the storm finally starts to fade into the distance. In lesser hands there is little doubt that a piece such as this could have resulted in disastrous consequences but it is to Musgrave’s credit that what emerges is both sure-footed and stamped with her own musical personality, a strength of personality that carries the piece admirably well.

Nicholas Daniel is a convincing and eloquent soloist in the oboe concerto Helios, the most recent of the four works presented and a challenging vehicle for his virtuosic skills. The "chariot" referred to above is formed by the soloist and a group of concertante players, four woodwinds, two horns and one trumpet, to whom Musgrave also gives parts of considerable technical difficulty. Like Memento Vitae, the work has a storm at its heart, a tempest that the players battle through manfully before Helios returns home from the pastures where his horses graze in the Islands of the Blessed. His journey brings him along the ocean stream of Greek myth that circles the earth. It is quite magically evoked by Musgrave as the soloist rides the rippling waters of the woodwind.

As the title implies, Night Music, is a dreamscape, a kaleidoscopic landscape of the imagination that constantly shifts in mood and atmosphere. Central to the work are two concertante horns that Musgrave moves around the orchestra, a device also used effectively in the Clarinet Concerto where the nature of the soloist’s material is partly dictated by the section of the orchestra they are with at the time. Again the sense of drama is important here for in Night Music the horn’s material is lyrical when the two instruments are close together. It becomes more dramatic and spatially orientated when they separate to either side of the conductor part way through the piece until ultimately the work draws to a close with the first horn moving off stage.

The Seasons was written to a commission from The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the inspiration initially springing from a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in particular Piero di Cosimo’s Caccia Primitiva. The four movements, commencing with Autumn, the most violent and destructive in character, take the listener on a kind of seasonal tour of the world. The lyrical solo oboe in the otherwise chilling Winter quotes briefly The Star Spangled Banner (a reference to the painting ‘Washington Crossing the Frozen Delaware’ by Leutze) until in celebratory Summer both the American and French national anthems are quoted, the catalyst for the French anthem being Van Gogh’s ‘Le 14 juillet à Paris’ as well as paintings by Jaspar Johns and Monet.

All of the performances are splendid and do the music full justice although I would single out the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for their contribution both collectively and individually, the concertante parts despatched with confidence and considerable style.

A final point worthy of note is that there is a degree of doubling up for collectors here. However, I would say that for anyone who owns the original Collins Classics release of Helios etc. the acquisition of this mid-price re-issue is more than justified by the inclusion of Memento Vitae. The Seasons also exists in a performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the composer on Cala (CACD 1023) coupled with the Autumn Sonata for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra and the wonderfully exhilarating Clarinet Concerto, for which there is no other current rival [review]. For this reason alone I would not want to be without all three discs in my collection.

Christopher Thomas.

See also review by Hubert Culot

 



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