RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928)
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1981) [31:23]
Jake Gardner (baritone); Gayle Hunnicutt, David Healy, Ed Bishop (speakers)
London Sinfonietta/Thea Musgrave
rec. 20 December 1981, BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
Green (2007) [13:40]
Scottish Ensemble/Jonathan Morton (leader)
rec. 15 December 2008, The Music Hall, Aberdeen
Wild Winter I (1993) [19:22]
Red Byrd, Fretwork
rec. 16 July 1993, Lichfield Cathedral
NMC NMC D167 [64:54]
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was a BBC commission, and this is the BBC recording of the first performance. The other two works were also recorded by the BBC, apparently at the premieres. The booklet contains an introductory essay on the three works by the composer herself, in English only, as well as all sung texts, with translation into English where appropriate. NMC and the BBC are to be congratulated and thanked for making this superb disc available.
Contemporary composers of opera are frequently criticised, often with some justification, for their apparent inability to spin out a memorable vocal line that both moves the action forward and evokes character, leaving the orchestra to do the work instead. In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Thea Musgrave is not totally immune from such criticism, yet there is no doubt that the sung passages of this remarkable work achieve real lyricism, expressiveness and a most moving intensity. The work was commissioned by the BBC as an opera for radio. Taking place during the American Civil War, it is the tragic story of Peyton Farquar, a planter from the South, who falls foul of the Yankee forces. Speech in contemporary opera might again lead us to suspect that the composer could not find the right music; here, of the four characters, all are speaking roles except that of Peyton, but it works. The two male roles are taken well enough, and the Narrator - who turns out to be very much more than that - is ideally played by Gayle Hunnicutt. Jake Gardner speaks a few lines too, but when he sings he is transformed, both by the music and by his own remarkable talent, into an eloquent, passionate man whose character we can believe in and whose story moves and inspires us. The recording betrays its radio origins. Stereo spread is very wide, with some of the voices coming from extreme right and left, and sound effects such as horses hooves and gun shots evoke radio plays of the period. The recording of the orchestra and singing voice is excellent. At a little over half an hour, this is a real opera, albeit an opera like no other. It is powerful and moving and I urge readers to make its acquaintance.
Wild Winter I is a very unusual work too. It was commissioned by the Lichfield Festival to commemorate the Siege of Lichfield of 1643, and the composer writes that one of the main difficulties she faced was finding a suitable text. In the end, she chose a selection of extracts in different languages from poetic works dealing with conflict and war. There is some Owen, some Lorca, some Petrarch amongst others. The work can only be partly appreciated without access to these texts, and I hope the first and subsequent audiences have been as well served as those who will buy this disc. The subtitle of the work is “Lamentations for voice and viols”; it is a powerful expression of conflict, suffering and lamentation. The setting of Petrarch, for example, is an uncanny twentieth-century equivalent of such “weeping” music as might be found in a Renaissance Italian madrigal. If the writing for viols, brilliantly played here by Fretwork, is not quite so integrated or strikingly original as in George Benjamin’s miraculous Upon Silence, it is nonetheless wholly successful and effective. The vocal writing is masterly, and the composer could surely not have wished for anything finer than the four voices of Red Byrd. Though many images in the words are harsh and cruel, and receive appropriate music, the work is frequently exquisitely beautiful.
Green, for string orchestra, fits into the overall programme because, like the other two works, it is concerned with conflict, though abstract musical conflict this time. An almost pastoral atmosphere is established at the outset, in music that reminded me of some pieces by Sally Beamish, but this is soon disturbed when the double bass introduces a foreign and disruptive note. The rest of the work is a restless exploration of these two conflicting elements. In the end it is the invader who prevails, which might be seen as representing the composer’s essentially pessimistic viewpoint, supported by a reference to her “concern and outrage with the happenings in the world today, where we are witnessing, once again, ‘man’s inhumanity to man’.” Compare this, though, with her choice of title, where the word “green” “represents either the freshness of youth, or the plant life in our world on which we all depend.” If this, the shortest and most recent work on the disc, makes a less immediate impact than the others, I think it is simply because there are no words or voices. Its richness is revealed each time one returns to it.
Three magnificent works, superbly performed and recorded by the BBC.