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Thea MUSGRAVE (b.1928)
Clarinet Concerto (1968) [26.20]
The Seasons (1988) [25.56]
Autumn Sonata - concerto for bass clarinet and orchestra (1993) [21.38]
Victoria Soames, clarinet and bass clarinet BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Thea Musgrave Recorded Glasgow City Hall, 5-7 April 1996. CLARINET CLASSICS CC0035 [73.14]

I must state straightaway that this disc is a minor revelation. Normally Thea Musgrave is not a part of my listening programme. It is nothing personal really. However I seem to recall a number of works that I heard (in Glasgow) in the early seventies that did not impress me in the least. That experience put me off her music ever since. With this in the background I approached the present disc with some trepidation.

The first thing to strike me was its presentation. The cover art is a fine painting by Claude Monet – Rue St Denis, Festivities of June 30th, 1878; more about this later. The next point to note is the generous amount of material that Clarinet Classics have engineered onto this disc – an excellent 73 minutes. There are three works written over a period of nearly twenty five years so it is well representative of the composer’s career. The programme notes are excellent, if somewhat idiosyncratic. They are written by the composer herself, although in the third person!

All three pieces are beautifully played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s baton. The clarinet soloist, Victoria Soames, brings her deep understanding of modern music to these works and her technique seems to me to be faultless.

Thea Musgrave is a Scottish composer who has decided to live in the United States. Her husband is conductor and director of the Virginia Opera, so it is a musical household. Her name first came to the fore through performances on the BBC and works presented at the Edinburgh Festival. However there is nothing parochial about her music. She is performed throughout the western world at venues such as the Warsaw Autumn Festival, the Florence Maggio Musicale, Venice Biennale, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham and Zagreb Festivals.

She is noted for her eight operas, the most famous being ‘Mary Queen of Scots.’ This work has had a number of productions in the United States and the UK.

Musgrave has written for a wide variety of media, including orchestral and chamber music. Latterly she has utilised what she calls the ‘dramatic-abstract’ form – dramatic in presentation but because lacking in a programme it is also abstract.

The Clarinet Concerto reflects this particular philosophy whilst the other two works exhibit the more programmatic elements of her music-making.

Based on my early ’seventies excursion into her music I was prepared for a heady mix of serialism – reflecting Schoenberg and Webern. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these pieces are extremely approachable. There is nothing here that is fearsome or liable to excite reactionary comments about “noise not music”. This is not to say that it abounds in tunes that the errand boy will whistle on his bike. However, there is much lyricism here that is enhanced by sensitive orchestration.

The first work on this disc is the Clarinet Concerto which was composed for a Royal Philharmonic Society commission in 1968. Its dedicatee was Gervase de Peyer who gave the first performance and also made a recording. The programme notes suggest that the philosophy of the work is simple: a dramatic struggle or conflict between ‘unequal forces – solo versus tutti; individual versus crowd.’ Len Mullenger, in a review of this piece has expressed the method well: ‘The soloist begs support from sections of the orchestra and does this by the peripatetically moving to different sections of the orchestra and persuading them to play as separate units independently of the conductor.’

The Concerto is conceived as a single movement presented in six contrasting sections. Musgrave describes it as being in effect a ‘concerto grosso’. Each of these sections offers attractive material that never lacks interest. An unusual moment is the scherzo-like ‘prestissimo’ which makes use of an accordion for tonal effect. The ‘sensuoso’ is an atmospheric nocturne that once again exploits a wide range of orchestral colour. One of the features of this work, as alluded to above, is that the soloist physically moves around the orchestra. First with the woodwinds, then the brass and finally in the ‘normal’ concerto position for the tumultuous finish. This is done to enable the soloist to lead the various ‘concertante’ groups.

As a work this is well written and never lacks interest. The musical language is not overly difficult. There is always an overt lyricism underlying even the most angular phrases.

The second work on this CD, The Seasons, is in many ways different to the two concerti. It was commissioned by the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Field in 1988. Musgrave relates that the work was inspired by Piero de Cosimo’s frightening painting of hunting and fire, ‘Caccia Primitiva.’ It moved her to consider the ‘seasons’ as a metaphor for the cycles in the life of man.

The work unsurprisingly is in four movements. It commences with Autumn which depicts an impending storm. The composer makes use of ‘hunting horns’ set against an unsettled background. Winter is a wonderful musical description of a frozen landscape – of ‘ice and despair.’ In places its mood reminds me of the temper of RVW’s Antarctic Symphony. The great painting by Leutze of "Washington Crossing the Frozen Delaware" underlies the imagery here. The Spring movement heralds a thaw. The snow melts, there is a dawn chorus, and rebirth is suggested. This is the most romantic movement and it is certainly very beautiful; perhaps the most impressive music on the disc. Summer is all ‘fulfilment and rejoicing’. It is inspired by the painting that is on the CD cover, Claude Monet’s – Rue St Denis, Festivities of June 30th, 1878. The only weak point is the direct quotation of the U.S. and French national anthems. It strikes me as somewhat trite and certainly mars an otherwise superb work. Up to this point it is possible to hear this work as abstract music. This quotation forces a programme on the listener. I accept the final contention that ‘summer’ means that mankind is freed from tyranny – but wish that she had chosen another way of communicating this fact.

I had never heard a ‘bass clarinet concerto’ until the one recorded here. I doubt that there can be many well known ones in the catalogue. However, for a list of examples consult

This example by Musgrave is actually called an Autumn Sonata – a Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra. It was commissioned by the present soloist in 1993 who gave its first performance at the Cheltenham Festival the following year. There is a definite programme underlying this work: derived in this case from literature. Musgrave had previously set a poem by the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. She revisited his writings and chose a number of short fragments to ‘preface the major sections of this autumnal landscape’. The work has six sections, each lasting for two or three minutes. Once again the composer creates a varied presentation of material; attention never lapses. This is an atmospheric tone poem operating at a number of levels: death, war and landscape. Although the composer is not directly describing war, there are allusions to the desolation and despair caused by hostilities. This is a fine piece that exploits the tonal colour of the bass clarinet to the full.

I enjoyed this CD. It is an excellent introduction to compositions by this well known and well respected Scottish composer. I would further recommend it to anyone who loves the clarinet. Ignore any rumours that you may have heard about difficulty or gross intellectualism in her music. All of this is approachable and most of it is thoroughly enjoyable.

The soloist renders both works extremely well. It is certainly interesting to hear a performance on the bass clarinet.

John France

See also review by Len Mullenger

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