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Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928)
Turbulent Landscapes (2003) [25.08]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. 20 July 2005, live, Royal Albert Hall, London
Songs for a Winter’s Evening (1995) [22.39]
Lisa Milne (soprano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2 August 1998, live, Royal Albert Hall, London
Two’s Company (2005) [20.49]
Evelyn Glennie (percussion); Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. 31 August 2007, live, Royal Albert Hall, London
Detailed tracklisting at end of review
NMC D153 [69.01] 
Experience Classicsonline


Now in her eighty-first year Thea Musgrave continues to compose with power and meticulous attention. The works on this CD are the products of recent years and show how consistent and energetic she has been.

I first got to know her music back in the late 1960s with a piece called Night Music. It dates from 1969 and was recorded on the old Collins Classics label by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Then there’s her marvellous Concerto for Orchestra (1967) available on Lyrita (see review). I managed to borrow the scores for these two pieces and was amazed by her orchestration.


In 1972 she was all set to move to
America as the Guest Professor at the University of Santa Barbara. I was at the Guildhall School of Music that year and she came to listen to student compositions including one of mine. I remember that we were fascinated by her perceptive comments. 

I have followed her music as much as possible ever since, so that when this CD landed on my mat I was delighted to make the acquaintance of these three recent works. Each was recorded beautifully at three different Prom concerts in an extraordinary cough-less Albert Hall. I was there on
31 August 2007, one very sultry evening, for the Two’s Company performance.

The concept of concerto or, solo against or complementing an ensemble, has obsessed Musgrave for most of her composing life. The ‘contest’ leads to a sense of drama, so we should not be surprised to find that she has also composed half a dozen or so operas. The present three compositions continue her compositional interests.
 

Songs for a Winter’s Evening
is a most impressive and beautiful work and serves to sum up Musgrave’s language. Although by 1995 the composer had lived in America for well over thirty years, for these settings of Robbie Burns she had “to revisit my Scottish Heritage”. She had, I assume also done this with her opera ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ in 1977. This is achieved by, as she says, integrating “Burns’ 18th Century world with our own”. She succeeds through “recognizing and incorporating the original tunes” associated with the poems.  Song Four gives us a very good example in ‘Ca the yowes to the knowes’, one of the most haunting of all traditional Scottish melodies. The first verse is set simply with basic accompaniment. The remaining five verses develop out of it never repeating it but always related. Fragments of the original melody waft around periodically in the orchestra. Similarly in the jolly ‘O, whistle an‘ I’ll come to ye, my lad’ the melody is stated with occasional piccolo embellishment and then allowed to play around in the strings until taken up by the woodwind in variant form. The more you listen, the more you marvel at the cleverness of the counterpoint. 

This fascination also applies to the ‘orchestration’. It is in Turbulent Landscapes that the orchestral colours which I so recognize as Musgrave’s are to be found. There is a special use of bells and wind chimes but there is also a rich harmony which verges on tonality but is never quite there. This six movement work was inspired by paintings by Turner. The booklet notes offer us brief comments by Musgrave and normally slightly longer ones by Michael Cassin of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. I would have preferred it if NMC could have somehow afforded reproductions of the pictures in the booklet as
Naxos have sometimes done. Nevertheless Cassin’s remarks are very helpful. If you have a Turner book at home then look at the pictures whilst listening - it is quite revealing. The work opens with ‘Sunrise and Sea-monster’ – a calm sea then a sunrise: magical music featuring trumpets and solo tuba. The second movement ‘The Shipwreck’ has a solo oboe, the third a solo horn, the fourth various brass. In other words there is an element of the dramatic and of the concerto principle even here where the music is blatantly descriptive. The next section is called ‘War, The Exile and the Rock limpet’. It includes a quote from the ‘Marseillaise’ and from the British national anthem. The painting features Napoleon as he contemplates his defeat by Wellington at Trafalgar. These anthem quotes are subtle and well placed and are used in a way reminiscent of those in the song-cycle. Lisa Milne makes a magnificent and beautiful soprano soloist with immaculate diction, real passion and commitment. 

Thea Musgrave’s love of percussion comes to the fore again in Two’s Company written for those fine musicians Nicholas Daniel and Dame Evelyn Glennie. At the beginning the two literally stand apart on the stage. I remember how this did not quite come off aurally in the Albert Hall; at least not from where I sat. During the work they move around the platform. This was a little dramatic trick which Musgrave discovered in the 1960s in the Horn Concerto. With two soloists it makes for a curious circling drama. The soloists relate musically to each other but only come together – physically - at the end. The work falls into three sections beginning with an atmospheric ‘Desolate’ movement. Here the sound of the wind-chimes and later of the vibraphone fall magically on the ear. Daniel carols wonderfully at one point with the orchestral cor anglais. The second movement is a scherzo marked ‘Frivolous, playful’ then there is an even louder, more dramatic and faster section marked ‘Dramatic: furious/expressive’. Finally the arch-like form of the whole becomes apparent as the music falls back onto a section marked ‘Warm-passionate-exultant’ with a “Whirling coda”. The recording is top quality and it comes out much better than the one I made from the radio.


I would love to hear these works again but performed by different orchestras and soloists to bring out other nuances. To sum up, this is an excellent CD, musically and aurally. It is wonderfully realized by all concerned. If British music is important to you then do seek this out. The scores are approachable and fulfilling for audience and performers alike. Masterworks in fact.


Gary Higginson


Tracklisting

 
Turbulent Landscapes:
Sunrise with Sea Monsters 3'20
The Shipwreck 6'08 
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps 3'34 
War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet 3'18 
16th October 1834: The Burning of the Houses of Parliament 4'38 
Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands 4'10 
 
Songs for a Winter's Evening:
I am my mammy's ae bairn 3'04
Summer's a pleasant time 3'01 
O, whistle an' I'll come to ye, my lad! 2'05 
Ca' the yowes to the knowes 3'22 
Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon 3'14 
Jamie come try me 4'17 
John Anderson my Jo 3'36 
 
Two's Company:
Desolate, lonely 6'55 
Frivolous, playful 3'36 
Dramatic: furious/ expressive 5'05 
Warm - passionate - exultant 5'13

 
 


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