|Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
July 2005, live, Royal Albert Hall,
for a Winter’s Evening (1995) [22.39]
Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
August 1998, live, Royal Albert Hall,
(percussion); Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
August 2007, live, Royal Albert Hall,
tracklisting at end of review
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
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
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.
Sunrise with Sea Monsters 3'20
Storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps 3'34
The Exile and the Rock Limpet 3'18
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament 4'38
Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands
Songs for a Winter's Evening:
am my mammy's ae bairn 3'04
a pleasant time 3'01
whistle an' I'll come to ye, my lad! 2'05
the yowes to the knowes 3'22
banks and braes o' bonnie Doon
come try me 4'17
Anderson my Jo 3'36
furious/ expressive 5'05
- passionate - exultant 5'13