Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a generous CD of reissues of classic new music from the 1960s, later recordings of which exist only for the Clarinet Concerto (Clarinet Classics, 35), Excursions (Campion 1353) and Monologue (Capstone 8714). They are played by performers then at the height of their powers and with flair and surety that makes this a landmark disc and one to be bought without hesitation by anyone interested in the development of post-war British music in general and Thea Musgrave’s mellow, steady and always inventive style in particular.
Born in Scotland but now resident in the United States, Musgrave’s career and output have always matched breadth with a rather single-minded determination to work as she has wanted to, and not as fad or fashion might have suggested. An example would be her adherence to the dramatic qualities of her music in their conscious rejection of tonality while at the same time avoiding the formality of serialism. Thus the concerto as a genre proved a suitable vehicle for the resultant exploration of structure with gusto. Particularly since, for Musgrave, her music’s performers are more actors than conveyors of a pre-existing score. That’s very evident in the orchestral pieces here.
The Concerto for Orchestra is a work full of tension, tonal and temporal. Indeed, it explores the notion of instruments ‘in revolt’ against the conductor. There is a certain liberality of interpretation (freedom to repeat, with rubato) which is designed to strain the very fabric of the music. For this to be effective the playing has to be impeccable; every note has to be heard; every attack and decay controlled; every timbre distinct. And so it is on this landmark recording by another provincial orchestra (the Scottish National Orchestra) than that to which the work was dedicated (the CBSO). The playing is crisp, vibrant, rounded, tuneful; yet it fully conveys the apparent waywardness of line which is in fact the very essence of the concerto. The supremacy of the clarinet before, throughout and after the stunning tutti and crescendi is key to the work and emerges with great effect here. Exemplary.
Musgrave’s Clarinet Concerto has the distinction of requiring the soloist to promenade through the orchestra. It’s a logical progression after the Concerto for Orchestra - again exploring aural space. Musgrave was (and has remained) fascinated by the way sounds group in space as well as time and ways in which (orchestral) soloists can wrest the lead from the conventional director of events, the conductor. Once again there are extremes of volume and texture. Once again, the forces of - this time - the LSO are more than up to the task, playing with a certainty and conviction that carry the work as far, surely, as Musgrave intended it to go: these were the days before sounds were savoured exclusively for their own sake with emphasis on massed percussion or aleatoric devices. Notable (as was the case with the Concerto for Orchestra) is a major part for harp; there is also a prominent accordion part.
The Horn Concerto also builds upon Musgrave’s concept of ‘Space music’: in this piece members of the horn section themselves move around the hall. There are also ‘prepared’ instruments – a piano with screws, a book and a metal bar; and a harp with paper threaded through some of its strings. This is not a frenetic or self-conscious work; rather a virtuosic and lyrical concerto, although the extent to which the leading role of the horn soloist is established yet undermined confers an iconoclastic quality on the piece. As de Peyer’s in the Clarinet Concerto, Tuckwell’s (the work’s dedicatee) articulation and phrasing in this concerto are outstanding.
Monologue is the earliest (and shortest) piece on this disc; it does experiment with serialism. Again, this is a piece of contrasts and music distinguished by Musgrave’s characteristic ‘tumultuoso’ marking, it still lives in the world of contrasts and the sort of subdued rhetoric which was to interest Musgrave later on in her career when composing vocal and operatic works. Again, beautifully played by Musgrave herself.
Excursions is interesting in that it was written for four hands on one piano also as a teaching piece: one ‘easy part’ for pupils to play with their teachers literally close at hand. In the first four of the eight pieces the easy part is the lower one; in the second four the top one. Miniatures they are – but with a substantial impact. Although they do have descriptive (of car journey) titles, these are only printed in small type at the end of each piece. Inasmuch as the material in Excursions is intended to emphasise learning, composer clearly has much respect for pupil. She is joined by Malcolm Williamson.
This is a disc whose primary interest will certainly be historic: it makes available again music that made waves in the early 70s, but music that has clung to a place in the repertoire – and justly so. Played with conviction and delight by the Scottish National and London Symphony orchestras under Gibson, Del Mar and Musgrave herself, it rightly acts as testament to just how significant and appealing her works were then. Perhaps it will revive interest in them now.
-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International