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Thea MUSGRAVE (b.1928)
Rorate Coeli for unaccompanied SATB and chorus (1976) [13.18]
The Voices of Our Ancestors (2014) [35.21]
Missa Brevis (2017) [15.17]
Tadeusz von Moltke (narrator)
Sarah Griffiths (soprano); Sishel Claverie (alto), Chad Kranak (tenor); Elijah Blaisdell (bass)
The New York Virtuoso Singers/Harold Rosenbaum with The American Brass Quintet
rec. live, 27 May 2018, Church of St. Mary, New York (Rorate, Voices), 13 April 2019, Advent Lutheran Church, New York (Missa)
LYRITA SRCD387 [63.54]

I first found myself greatly attracted to and excited by Thea Musgrave’s music in the late 60’s when at school and later as a student and managed to meet her in 1971. It was works like the ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ and the ‘Horn Concerto’ (both now on Lyrita SRCD 253) and her ‘Night Music’ once recorded on Collins, and other virtuoso concerti, which captivated me. The opening work on this CD Rorate Coeli is really a virtuoso vocal concerto. I purchased a score and have a strong and buoyant recording from 1987 of the work (Ionian Singers; Continuum 1055).

The scoring is for a set of five soloists and tutti choir also in five parts who tend to imitate and fold into the highly complex textures. The religious texts are on Christ’s birth and resurrection and are by William Dunbar (c.1465-c.1520) and these are interleaved with fragments from the Requiem Mass. In a sense the technical means behind this piece is a product of its time. There are aleatoric passages, spoken texts, instructions like ‘sing any pitch within the range’ and ‘do not try to speak together’ and hissing sounds. But despite all of that the work has a power of expression and an exciting sense of discovery of something new, mostly well captured in this live recording.

The Missa Brevis was composed for Wells Cathedral choir. Incidentally, it might at first seem odd that Lyrita have issued a disc recorded by a little-known (in this country anyway) American choir but it must be remembered that Musgrave has made her home in America since 1975. However this work does not represent her at her best, indeed I found the Gloria setting not only very functional but also frankly tedious. The only movement that is at all interesting is the Agnus dei with its mysterious cluster chords and sinewy organ writing. It is not aided by an oddly balanced acoustic made in the live church recording. I can’t say either that the choir really do themselves justice.

Musgrave knew that the remaining work on the disc would be first heard in the vast spaces of St. Bride’s Fleet Street so wanted to explore its possibilities. There is then a sense of theatricality about The Voices of Our Ancestors with the conductor being the first on stage and then, gradually the choir and then the brass group instigated by the trumpets, perhaps the beginning of creation is represented here as this piece concerns the existence of God and Mankind’s place or relevance in the world.

The twelve chosen ancient texts are from, for example, Rome, Greece and Egypt and have been fascinatingly compiled beginning with the ‘Creation Hymn’ from the ‘Rig Veda’ which, curiously is spoken over not more than a pedal point -“Darkness there was; at first concealed in darkness”. We work through a poem from the Sanskrit, then a Hebrew text, a Persian and an Arabic poem, Virgil’s version of Dido’s Lament and finally ‘The Song of the Harper’ from ancient Egypt exhorting us to ‘Enjoy thyself more than thou hast ever done before”. The translations being from the 17th up to the early 20th Centuries.

These poems are set for an SATB, chorus and four soloists as well as the brass. There are however problems caused by the live church recording. The tempo, though suitable for the acoustic, tends to be mostly slow. The chorus is, sadly, often very distant and the words are therefore almost completely indistinct. The soloists are better balanced but their diction is only a little clearer. In addition mezzo Sishel Claverie has a very obtrusive vibrato so that the line is sometimes lost. The choral writing is rather in the English Oxbridge tradition but the brass writing is a series of effects and atmospheres. I find the piece to be turgid and lacking in inspiration. Perhaps another performance might change my view. Fortunately the texts are clearly given in the excellent booklet. This also contains the usual high standard and informative essay by Paul Conway.

Even speaking as a fan of Thea Musgrave’s work I’m not sure I can recommend this disc, which I’m sorry about. However it does fill a gap in her burgeoning discography.

Gary Higginson

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