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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Vienna Modern Masters

Margaret Lucy WILKINS (b.1939)
Musica Angelorum (1991)a
Struwwelpeter (1973)b
Burnt Sienna: Etude for String Trio (1974)c
366" for Solo Trombone (1986)d
Symphony (1989)e
Alison Wells (mezzo-soprano)b; Barrie Webb (trombone)d; Sofia Soloists Chamber Ensemblea; FIREBIRD Ensembleb; FIREBIRD String Trioc; Timişoară Symphony Orchestrae; Plamen Djurova, Barrie Webbbe
Recorded: Bulgarian National Radio, Musica Nova, Sofia, June 1996 (Musica Angelorum); St.Paul’s Hall, University of Huddersfield, June 2002 and Sala Liceuluide Muzică “Ion Vidu”, Timişoară, October 1999 (Symphony)
VIENNA MODERN MASTERS VMM 3055 [67:10]

I must confess that Margaret Lucy Wilkins’ name and music are new to me, so that a composer’s portrait, such as the present release, is most welcome. It allows a fairly comprehensive survey of her multi-faceted compositional skills. The works here are quite contrasted though a closer study of the scores might, I suspect, help find some common characteristics. The pieces date from different periods of Wilkins’ composing career. The earliest piece is Struwwelpeter for mezzo-soprano and ensemble dating from 1973. The music is closely knit to fit the various moods implied by the texts. By the way, "the original German text is by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann in an adaptation of an English translation". I do not know why (and do not ask me why), but I suspect that the words might be by the composer herself! Anyway, these texts have an underlying theme: cruelty, to oneself and to others. Most texts have an ironic, even sarcastic ring that is very adroitly reflected in the music. Struwwelpeter, the first section, is about a "19th century Shockheaded Peter" and his modern counterpart, the drug addict. Cruel Frederick too is about cruelty, "not least in the army". The third section, one of the longest, Harriet and the Matches, is about the use of flame, when a single flame gets out of control, which may have horrifying results, "as was discovered in the Nazi concentration camps". In her notes, the composer mentions that captive Jews were entertained(!) by Offenbach’s celebrated Barcarolle. Hence, the lavish use made of this tune in this otherwise gruesome section. Augustus "starves to death in a land of plenty, through his own perverseness". The setting sounds as a British folk-song gone sour. The Inky Boys is about racial discrimination. It quotes the old South African National Anthem played on an out-of-tune piano and the rest of the music in this section has a jazzy tinge enhanced by an all-pervading saxophone part. Flying Robert or how aviation may also be used to drop other things than cereal bags. What about the music, then? Well, overtly expressionistic, with distorted but telling musical quotes or allusions, much in the same way as Maxwell Davies in some of his music-theatre pieces. Incidentally, Struwwelpeter was written for Jane Manning and Matrix.

 

Burnt Sienna: Etude for String Trio is a beautiful essay in string writing; and, to my mind, the most readily approachable work in this cross-section of Wilkins’ output. 366" for solo trombone is a free fantasy including some discrete music-theatre techniques (the player is heard tapping his feet on the floor) but, on the whole, I found it a more engaging work than Berio’s Sequenza V.

 

Musica Angelorum for string orchestra is another study in string writing and, in every respect, as successful and attractive as Burnt Sienna. Many arresting moments in this atmospheric piece that vastly repays repeated hearings.

Wilkins’ large-scale symphony is by far the most substantial work here. It was composed in 1989 but was first performed ten years later by the same performers as on this disc. (The recording was actually made a few months after the premiere.) It is in three movements (Exposition, Juxtaposition, Oppositions) in the fairly traditional fast-slow-fast pattern, although this is as far as tradition goes. The whole work is in fact rather unusual in its conception, for most of it is a far cry from any such traditional symphonic scheme. The first movement is rather a kaleidoscope of "sculptured textures" (the composer’s words) that are repeated a number of times, though the repetitions are interrupted by unrelated material. The second movement is a beautiful slow arch form whose argument is mainly carried by the strings (Wilkins has a real feeling for and liking of string textures). The third movement is again a fast one, and quite similar to the opening one, which it actually mirrors. This energetic movement is abruptly cut short, leaving many ‘unanswered questions’. With its brass heavy scoring and its block structures, Wilkins’ Symphony is a powerful, granite-like statement of some considerable strength. No easy stuff … tough.

Composer’s portraits, such as the present release, are the ideal way to get to know the music of composers who are new to you. The present release is no exception in this respect. Wilkins is obviously a composer who has things to say, and who says them in the best possible way, in vivid, arresting and often gripping terms. Her music is particularly well served by all the present players who put all their heart and conviction into this often quite demanding, but very rewarding music. Really well worth investigating.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Gwyn Parry-Jones



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