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
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
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
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 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
review by Len Mullenger