Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Thea Musgrave Concerto for clarinet and orchestra, The Seasons, Autumn Sonata (Bass Clarinet concerto) Victoria Soames (clarinet and bass clarinet), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thea Musgrave
Cala CACD1023 [73.55]

Now reissued as Clarinet Classics CC0035



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Thea Musgrave The Seasons, Helios, Night Music Nicholas Daniel (oboe),  Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Kraemer Collins 15292 [59.50]



Thea Musgrave Horn Concerto with Elgar Symphony No.1 Michael Thompson (horn), The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Bramwell Tovey NYOS 004 [76.51]


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this disc here from Crotchet

Here we have a dilemma.
For many composers we have a surfeit of discs to choose from; for Thea Musgrave we have only three and these come with reservations - not, I hasten to add, over the performances or the recordings, but over choice of couplings. Two of the discs duplicate a major work and the third has a less than satisfactory, or apposite, coupling. All three are performed most fittingly by Scottish orchestras and one is conducted by the composer.

Thea Musgrave (1928 -  ) read music at Edinburgh University under the guidance of Sidney Newman and Hans Gal and then studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris for four years (1950-1954). Her early compositions were tonal, a style to which she later returned. At a 1953 Dartington Summer School she met William Glock and through his advocacy became aware of the late Viennese serial composers, Schoenberg and Webern, and also the compositions of Charles Ives, whose influence can be heard on The Seasons on two of the present discs. Her compositions of the 1950's tended towards chromaticism and the chamber opera The Abbot of Dimmock (1955) incorporated Schoenbergian  sprechstimme. In 1958 she attended Tanglewood and met Aaron Copland and Milton Babbitt ,and her work became quite experimental. Eventually, she found that style of composition limiting and inexpressive and unsuitable for opera which has been her main output and her last serial composition was Sinfonia of 1963. Since then she has forged her own path, her major output being eight operas although no recordings are available as far as I am aware. She married and became resident in America and is still actively composing, often with a particular artist in mind such as  Victoria Soames in the bass clarinet concerto or as in Helios written for Nicholas Daniel and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, both works are featured on the recordings under review, performed by their dedicatees.

Thea may have started out being influenced by Schoenberg, Webern and her teacher William Glock but that is not how I hear her music at all (I have not heard any of her operas). To my ears her music  is modern but approachable, sensitive and responsive without any sudden unnecessary dramatic outbursts that leave you wondering what on earth hit you. Her compositions would certainly leave the old ladies unruffled on the front row! She does not write big tunes for her soloists in the way Alwyn or Walton did - parts for her soloists tend to be rather spiky but cushioned by a lyrical underpinning in the orchestra.

Of the three discs under review, the starting point for newcomers must go to the CALA release. Cala is a small, enterprising, label owned by the conductor Geoffrey Simon. All three works are conducted by the composer who also writes the programme notes in a dispassionate, third person style, partially used here with permission from Geoffrey Simon.

The Clarinet Concerto (26:20)(Royal Philharmonic Society Commission, 1968) was written for Gervase de Peyer who made the first recording (Argo ZRG726 8/75), which is rather academic as it is not currently available and it is unlikely Polygram will get round to re-issuing it. The composer writes that the concerto depicts a struggle between unequal forces - the individual versus the crowd. The soloist begs support from sections of the orchestra and does this by the peripatetically moving to different sections of the orchestra and persuading them to play as separate units independently of the conductor. This same idea is also taken up in other works of hers such as the Night Music for chamber orchestra which has two horn players doing the same (ARGO 702 nla) and in the Horn Concerto (see below). In one unusual alliance the soloist pairs up with an accordian which is particularly well caught in this recording.

I have always loved the sound of the bass clarinet, particularly when used by Shostakovich, but I have never previously heard it used as a solo instrument in a concerto. Again the sound has been beautifully caught by the engineer (Graeme Taylor) and I have been fascinated by the range of the instrument. The Autumn Sonata is a dark, brooding, atmospheric concerto in six parts (21:38) and was commissioned by the present soloist, Victoria Soames, who gave the first performance at the Cheltenham Festival in 1994. Musgrave had previously set a poem by the Austrian Poet, Georg Trakl, in "Wild Winter" and was inspired to write this piece by other of his writings. Each section of the Concerto is prefaced in the score by short fragments from four different poems. Thea Musgrave describes each section as follows:

i Oscuro e misterioso
A dreamer approaches a dark menacing forest, where crows scatter at the sound of black footsteps.

ii Svegliato
Mysterious dark forces awaken and bells toll the alarm

iii Alla marcia, con furore
The echoing sound of deadly weapons erupts and culminates in a pounding march, the major climax of the work.

iv Lamentoso
Eventually the march subsides and the dark flutes of Autumn greet the ghosts of heroes. Here the ancient chant, Dies Irae, is embodied in the musical texture in much the same way as it was in the setting of the Trakl poem in "Wild Winter".

v Oscuro e misterioso
A reprise of the opening section.
(Here we have the bonus of two Bass Clarinets as an offstage instrument "shadows" the soloist and the work momentarily becomes a double concerto for Bass Clarinet.)

vi Adagio sostenuto
The coda where .... the music .... culminates in a quotation from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata."

Finally the black mood is dispelled and the music fades; was it really a memory or just a dream?

The middle work on the disc is orchestral: "The Seasons" (25:26) and was a commission from The Academy of St Martins in the Fields in 1988 to celebrate the composer's 60th birthday; the first performance was conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. This work is in four movements (Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer) and each movement was inspired by paintings rather than poetry. Musgrave had visited the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and on viewing Piero di Cosimo's "Caccia Primitiva", which depicts "a frightening image of fire and destruction built around a wild and gory hunt scene" she was struck by the idea that various art works that depicted the four seasons could also "become a metaphor for the cycles in the life of man". This work is tonal, tuneful, optimistic and very enjoyable. The four sections follow without a break

The "Autumn" movement was inspired by  Caccia Primitiva and Picasso's "The End of the Road" and depicts a violent tempest. Raindrops plink in the strings together with lightening bursts from trumpets and percussion (including piano) with the wind creaking in the contrabassoon.  Tubular bells have a prominent part eventually intoning the Dies Irae as the end of the road approaches. "Winter" is despair in an icy landscape derived from viewing Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Frozen Delaware" Only a solo oboe gives hope among the searching, crooning, string phrases and there is a brief quotation from the "Star Spangled Banner" which will re-appear in Summer. The thaw comes in "Spring" where the melt water dripping from the ice is clearly heard, the awakening birds and finally the cuckoo as the harbinger of spring; the painting here was Van Gogh's "The Sower". Finally "Summer", a movement of rejoicing and celebration with extended Ivesian section juxtaposing the Marseillaise, the Star-Spangled Banner and enthusiastic timps.. The paintings here were Van Gogh's "Le 14 juillet a Paris", Jasper Johns' "Flag" and Monet's "Rue St-Denis, Festivities of June 30, 1878" (reproduced on the cover above). For Nature this is the final liberation from Winter; and for Man, liberation from tyranny.

Glasgow City Hall is obviously a good recording venue as the engineers have produced a very natural recording with good depth to the orchestra and a "hall feel" without the undue resonance that BIS often achieve.

The Collins issue also includes the Seasons which is coupled with Helios and Night Music.  Helios  [16.53] was premie../graphics/red at the St Magnus festival, Orkney in 1995. Helios, the Greek God who drove the sun chariot across the sky is represented by an oboe (as Jennifer Barnes's booklet notes point out, Helios was, quite appropriately, the son of a Titan named Thea). The piece depicts Helios traversing the sky, having to ride through a storm, and slowly fading peacefully on the other side in readiness for another journey the next day. The disposition of instruments here is interesting. The horns and woodwind form a  V shape with the trumpet at the apex. This represents the chariot which is pulled by four white stallions represented by a flute, oboe, bassoon and clarinet/bass clarinet, all sitting in a row in the apex just in front of the trumpet. In front of them is the massed strings creating the storm with the solo oboe out front (Robin Williams). With the aid of the booklet diagram this seating (and standing) plan can be discerned in the recording.

Night Music [19.15] is an earlier work from 1969 and was a BBC commission. Musgrave describes this piece as a 'dream landscape', a series of moods that shift rapidly and unp../graphics/redictably. Here we have two peripatetic horn players who at first sit close, playing harmoniously together and later move to the front, on either side of the conductor, at some distance apart becoming highly animated, with one finally slowly moving off stage. Musgrave is recreating the waking moments from sleep when the 'reality' of a dream slowly slips away and consciousness emerges. Whether intentional or not there are, at times, strong resemblances in the string writing to Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht ,with bowed strings floating  high over rapid pizzicato strings. We reach a loud central choppy section with chirruping woodwind and braying horns, not at all a nightmare; just an active and pleasant dream from which we slowly emerge. The two hornists are Robert Cook and Harry Johnstone.


I find little difference in performance between Thea Musgrave and Nicholas Kraemer. Kraemer is perhaps punchier and a touch faster in the two outer movements which whips up the excitement a notch higher, particularly in the Ivesian section of the final movement. The Collins recording is more analytical with the Cala having a more burnished sound with more hall feel, This makes Winter seem colder in the more analytical and slightly more distant Collins recording. Thea is more involving in the opening of Spring, possibly because of the closer recording but also because there is a smoother, more legato feel to the strings with the woodwind and brass slightly less intrusive. She is slightly slower in the final movement but, as with Klemperer, this produces a stronger sense of inevitability and forward propulsion: the less is more approach. But it is Kraemer and the collins sound who are more confrontational in the Ivesian section. Both are marvellous and make the music sound interesting and attention grabbing which does not help in a decision at all. The Cala does have the imprimatur of the composer, who frequently conducts her own works, and has the coupling of two major works so has to be an eventual first choice, if a choice has to be made.  This is not to decry the status of Helios and Night Music which are both fascinating works. I could not choose and just had to purchase both.

The Horn Concerto was completed in 1971 and had a première recording  from Barry Tuckwell conducted by the composer and coupled with the magnificent Concerto for Orchestra (Decca Headline HEAD 8; never released on CD). The present recording is the first on CD and is greatly welcomed. As with many of Musgrave's works there is an orchestral spacial context and there is often an instrumental seating plan prefacing her scores. In the horn concerto, the percussion are arched around the back of the orchestra, a trumpet on either side and the trombone and four orchestral horns as a group, who sometimes act as a reflection so that the soloist's themes blast around the auditorium, or even move out of the orchestra and surround the soloist, who then pit themselves eyeball to eyeball with the orchestra. Musgrave rightly describes this style of work as "dramatic abstract" and frequently use peripatetic groups of instruments or soloists. As with all youth orchestras, the students play with fervour and dedication and I have no reservations about Michael Thompson in comparison with the earlier recording. This disc would receive an unreserved commendation were it not for the coupling which, to my mind, is unsuitable and although extremely well played has a very slow adagio in which all tension and forward propulsion is lost. There are many better recommendations for this work than this one. The recording is superb with the soloist well caught, and was made in City Hall, Glasgow, produced by Andrew Keener. It is full price; and I was prepa../graphics/red to pay that for a work lasting only 22 minutes from this 77 minute disc... but will you I wonder? Even so it is still half the price of a concert ticket, if one could actually anticipate the chance of hearing this work performed 'at a venue near you'. I have to split my vote.

Horn Concerto  Elgar  

Len Mullenger

All these recordings were personal purchases and not received for review


Len Mullenger

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