Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Thea Musgrave: Song of the Enchanter (1991)

"Sibelius with notes" by Unknown
This is one of my major discoveries for 2015. I accept that it was composed nearly quarter of a century ago, so it has taken me a long while to discover it. But it is a short work that is well worth getting to know.
Thea Musgrave composed the Song of the Enchanter during the winter and spring of 1990. It had been commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra as part of their Sibelius 125 celebrations. The programme note explains that the work is based on a passage from the Finnish epic story the Kalevala. The hero—god Väinämäinen “has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people. All listen and all weep, their hearts melted. Even Väinämäinen weeps and his tears 'bigger than cranberries' fall into the clear waters of the deep blue sea. A sea bird dives down to retrieve his tears - they have ripened into pearls.” The Kalevala had a huge impact on the creative achievement of Sibelius himself, so it was appropriate for Musgrave to base her piece on an episode from this text.
Listeners who know Sibelius will enjoy spotting some echoes of the Swan of Tuonela and the great Fifth Symphony. There is a magic in these pages that Musgrave has created by her stunning orchestration and assimilation (but not parodying) of Sibelius’ craft.

The reviewer in The Independent (undated) suggested that the Song of the Enchanter ‘seemed designed as a prelude, poised on ambiguous preparatory harmony and restless watery ripples.’
The Gramophone (April 1992) note this ‘delightful and undemanding piece…with deliberate echoes of Sibelius'. Rowena Smith, reviewing a concert performance of this work in Glasgow for The Guardian (27 January 2009) described the work as being ‘a fantastically condensed, swirling seascape of a piece…’ 
The first performance was given on 14 February 1991 by the HPO conducted by James Loughran. 

Thea Musgrave’s Song of the Enchanter is available on Ondine ODE 767-2 with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Comissiona. Other works include Jean Sibelius: En Saga, Op. 9; Einar Englund: Ciacona; Joji Yuasa: The Midnight Sun ; Tobias Picker: Séance; Wilfred Josephs: In the North; Marius Constant: Hämeenlinna and Poul Ruders: Tundra. The Musgrave work has been posted on YouTube

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