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Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928)
Chamber works for oboe
Night Windows (2007) [14.49]; Impromptu No. 1 (1967) [4.49]; Impromptu No. 2 (1971); Cantilena (2008) [10.59]; Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1960) [9.43]; Take two oboes (2008) [7.54]; Threnody (1997/2005) [7.26]; Niobe (1988) [6.48]
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
Members of the Chilingirian Quartet; Joy Farrall (clarinet); Emma McDonough (flute); James Turnbull (oboe); Huw Watkins (piano)
rec. October 2011, Champs Hill Music Room, Pulborough, Sussex
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907568 [72.39]

I remember lying ill in bed as a teenager and being fascinated by a performance of Musgrave’s Night Music - once available on Collins Classics 15292 reissued on NMC Ancora. When I had an opportunity to sit behind her at the Guildhall School of Music in the 1970s and to see her direct a performance of her new Space-Play I was utterly captivated by the sounds. The spell was deepened when I went to a performance of her Horn Concerto with the orchestral horns scattered around the audience. This is a composer with the ability to project a real sense of drama. Her sound-world I really appreciate.
Even in the first work here, Night Windows for oboe and piano, there is a sense of theatrical eavesdropping. Only the other day I was in the same position as the artist Edward Hopper in 1928, walking up street at night in which people had not all drawn their curtains. The booklet cover features his Night Windows painting, with just a single female bending figure, which is a little less scandalous than the view I found myself confronted with! Anyway it set Musgrave off wondering about other people’s private thoughts in this five-movement suite. It has the headings Loneliness - the Hopper picture has that quality about it; Anger - a virtuoso Allegro; Nostalgia, Despair and Frenzy.
Nicholas Daniel is the captivating oboist. He has been a part of Thea Musgrave’s composing world for many years and it has been for him that most of these works were written.
The next two pieces are both called Impromptu and they were written three years apart. The first for flute and oboe originally included Janet Craxton who died far too young in 1981; she was Nicholas Daniel’s teacher. This is a scintillating little work. The Second Impromptu adds a clarinet and is double its length. Whilst in the first the composer admits to using aleatoric techniques - pitches are given but the rhythm is left up to the performers in certain sections. In No. 2 Musgrave in her succinct but useful notes comments that the rhythms “can be played with considerable freedom”. However you hear it, at the end all three come together in a believable unison after an often feverish journey.
The next work, Cantilena, lives up to its name, being deliberately lyrical, even romantic. Scored for string trio and oboe, Musgrave says of it that she wanted to write a work in which “an outsider (the oboe) joins the group(string trio) and adds to their dialogue. At first the newcomer is treated with a mixture of suspicion and agitation but eventually is made welcome”. Again there is a sense of the theatrical. It was written for an opening concert at the King’s Place, a hall that needed to welcome its new guests. The slow start rises into a faster climax point using the same material over again until falling back onto it opening sounds. It’s a memorable piece and well worth getting to know.
In Niobe, Musgrave pits the oboe against a pre-recorded tape mainly consisting of slowly-tolling bell sounds and later a gong. One is deliberately reminded of Hamlet’s statement about his mother “she comes, like Niobe, all tears”. The Greek Niobe laments her many sons and daughters and the oboe line represents a sort of keening, full of wailing and grief, very moving in its brevity. The balance between the oboe and the trio is not entirely pleasing however.
One should not be surprised that the last work on the disc, Threnody, is for cor anglais and piano as this instrument is often considered a somewhat mournful. Oddly enough the piece is a re-working of a 1997 piece written in memory of Roger Fallows. It works beautifully for cor anglais and falls into three connected sections. The Dies Irae plainchant is incorporated into a series of slow-moving chords. Musgrave’s language is very chromatic but it never loses sight of some kind of tonal centre; something evident in this work and in all of the pieces here. As a listener you are somehow never that far from home and the endings are always complete and satisfying.
Take two oboes is a witty little piece. Really it is a didactic exercise, a very good one, for well-known performer/teachers and their talented pupils. It’s one of a series apparently. Falling into four short movements- Pompous, Expressive, Serene and a 7/8 Frisky, it is a worthy addition to this very limited repertoire.
If one can detect changes at all in Musgrave’s basically consistent language over a sixty year composing career it is exemplified by putting the Threnody against the Trio for flute, oboe and piano, the earliest work on the disc, dating from 1960. The counterpoint is intense at times with the piano deliberately used to accompany and to carry the melody. The language is atonal but not serial and very typical of its time. Its three sections are restless and compared with the Threnody lack warmth but gain instead a youthful sense of exuberance.
Nicholas Daniel is in tremendous form and Huw Watkins is a sensitive and deeply committed accompanist. The other members of the team on this disc are also superb.

Gary Higginson

See also Thea Musgrave by Francis Routh