I remember lying ill in bed as a teenager and being fascinated by
a performance of Musgrave’s Night Music
- once available
reissued on NMC
. 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
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
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
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.
, 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
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
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.
See also Thea
Musgrave by Francis Routh