This CD continues the 90th birthday celebrations of Thea Musgrave, (27th May 1928) who is one of the most remarkable of living British composers. Although hailing originally from Barnton, Edinburgh, she has spent much of her working career based in the United States. This disc presents two orchestral works and a song-cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands).
Phoenix Rising for orchestra is one of my ‘great’ discoveries in 2018. This tour de force was composed some 21 years ago in 1997. It was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Musgrave has explained that the original intention was to present an ‘extended single movement progressing from dark to light.’ The form of the score took its final shape after she had seen a ‘phoenix’ sign outside a coffee shop in Virginia, USA. It was this concept of ‘the phoenix rising from the ashes as the promise of hope and rebirth’ that provided the main impetus of the work.
There are six sections to this piece: Dramatic/violent, Desolate, Aggressive, Mysterious, Peaceful and a short coda.
I felt that this composition is a bit like a ‘concerto for orchestra.’ For example, there is an ongoing struggle between the timpanist unsurprisingly representing ‘stormy’ violence and destructive forces and the French horn promising hope. The middle section of this work begins with a wonderful moment with two harps followed by a magical integration of pitched percussion (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel). This is surely the Phoenix being reborn from the flames. After this renaissance, the music glows with romantic sounds, before closing with a gentle coda.
What impressed me most with Phoenix Rising was the orchestration. It is a masterclass in the creation of a score that shines with luminosity and shudders with dark aggression.
If Phoenix Rising is a ‘concerto for orchestra’ the delightful Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland can be regarded as a ‘concertino’ for tuba. I guess that some critics present at the work’s premiere (during the Proms on 5 August 2012) had not read the composer’s words suggesting that this is ‘a light-hearted work.’ Certainly, it is an enjoyable piece that develops an almost cinematographic programme. Early one morning, Nessie emerges from the depths of the Loch which is shrouded in Highlan’ mist. As this clears, s/he plays in the ‘sparkling sun’ musically painted by trumpets – and then an old Caledonian melody is heard. Alas. the day is soon over and the monster (if monster it is) dives back into the depths of the loch. There is a big orchestral splash followed by an evening breeze rippling the dark waters.
There are precious few ‘tuba concertos’: Vaughan Williams’ being the most familiar. The present work is an ideally crafted ‘concertante’ piece demanding a large orchestra and idiomatic playing from the tuba soloist, who takes his normal seat and not that of a soloist at the front. Clearly, Musgrave has decided that Nessie sings with a ‘basso-profundo’ voice rather than ‘contralto.’ But is works. It is a splendidly orchestrated work. In fact, this is an attractive ‘post-card’ to her native land from the United States. It deserves to be popular.
I found Poets in Love: a song cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands) (2009) quite a difficult work to get my head around. It is not so much the ‘sound’ of the music, but the concept of having the songs presented in differing forms – duets and solos – and sometime overlapping.
The idea is that the seventeen songs present a variety of ‘views’ on the nature of love. The conceit that has typically been used is that the tenor is the romantic protagonist with the baritone takes as more ‘realistic and cynical’ view of love. This may be a bit clichéd.
Musgrave has collected her texts from a wide range of poets including (but not limited to) Afansay Fet, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Hölderlin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rainer Maria Rilke, Francis William Bourdillon, James Boswell, Torquato Tasso, Robert Burns and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Several different languages are used, although ‘workable’ translations have been presented in the score where Russian is not in the gift of the soloists.
As the liner notes explain, these songs reflect a wide variety of emotion: from the ‘warmly romantic to the cold and cynical, the rapturous and stormy to the pensive and philosophical, the jaunty and light-hearted to the sad and mournful.’
The songs are split into four groups for the sake of the CD track-listing, although I understand that they are to be performed without a break.
Stylistically, there is nothing particularly challenging here. Occasionally, the piano accompaniment calls forth something innovative (played on the strings inside) and then suddenly this is replaced by piano writing reminiscent of Schubert. There is some splendid ‘falsetto’ singing too.
Perhaps it is the eclectic nature of the texts and the songs themselves that I struggle with. All that said, these complex and often beautiful songs are well sung by Nathan Vale (tenor), Simon Wallfisch (baritone) with accompaniment by Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi.
Poets in Love was premiered at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania on 4 March 2010.
The liner notes by Paul Conway are excellent. They are divided into a discussion of the composer and followed by a detailed programme note about each work. The texts of Poets in Love are given in full, with translations where appropriate. There are no biographical details of the performers.
This is a great addition to the relatively sparse number of CDs devoted to Musgrave’s music. At present, there are about 30 discs featuring her music (many featuring several composers). It is a splendid 90th birthday gift to this eminent composer.
Thea MUSGRAVE (b.1928)
Phoenix Rising for orchestra (1997)
Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland (2012)
Poets in Love: A song cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands) (2009)
Daniel Trodden (tuba, Loch Ness), BBC National Orchestra of Wales/William Boughton
Nathan Vale (tenor), Simon Wallfisch (baritone), Simon Callaghan (piano primo), Hiroaki Takenouchi (piano secondo)
Rec. Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff 4-5 January 2018, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth 7-8 March 2018 (Poets in Love)
LYRITA SRCD 372
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.