Howard Riley’s (b.1943) Textures for string quartet has disappeared from the repertoire. I was unable to find many references to this work, except in the context of the 1970 Cheltenham Festival. Riley is a musician who now performs in the avant-garde jazz and experimental music world. However, he did crossover between genres in the late 1960s with the present Textures for string quartet and his Three Fragments for flute and piano which was also performed at Cheltenham. The Birmingham Post (13 July) noted that Textures was played by the Welsh String Quartet ‘and did what it set out to do with commendable brevity and a corresponding increase in our respect for its achievement.
One of the most impressive works heard at the 1970 Festival was the ‘concert premiere’ of Scottish composer Thea Musgrave’s Night Music. This 18-minute work is presented in a single movement with cascading and sometimes interlocking sections. The composer has written that ‘As so often in dreams, there are quickly changing moods — frightening, eerie, peaceful, romantic, stormy – and in this work highly contrasted musical sections quickly follow on from each other, interchanging and even at times overlapping.’ (Liner Notes NMCD074, 2002). The work involves a degree of ‘controlled freedom’ as well as normal performance disciplines. A novel aspect of this ‘dreamscape’ is the ‘seating arrangements’ for the two peripatetic horn players. If they are sat close together, the music is lyrical, but when they stand either side of the conductor, the sound is more dramatic and dissonant. There is a third horn player, ‘off stage’ who creates various echo effects. This is a highly charged, atmospheric piece that is both challenging and immediately attention grabbing. On the other hand, the reviewer in Musical Opinion (September 1970) thinks that the work presents a ‘Dark Night’ which is a ‘dangerous, unquiet country.’ This Festival performance as given by the BBC Welsh Orchestra conducted by Carewe. The same musicians had given the premiere broadcast from Cardiff City Hall on 25 October 1969.
In 1973 Thea Musgrave’s Night Music appeared on an LP of contemporary music released by Argo (ZRG 702). This album included Roger Sessions’ Rhapsody for orchestra and his Symphony No. 8 as well as Wallingford Riegger’s Dichotomy for chamber orchestra. In Musgrave’s piece Barry Tuckwell and Alan Chidell were the horn soloists and the London Sinfonietta was conducted by Frederik Prausnitz.
Two CDs of Musgrave’s Night Music have been subsequently released. In 1987, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicolas Kraemer issued an album devoted to her music in the now deleted Collins Classics series (15292). Along with Night Music it included the oboe concerto, Helios and orchestral The Seasons. All three Collins’s recordings were subsequently included on the NMCD074 retrospective mentioned above. This album also incorporated Memento Vitae. Night Music has been uploaded to the internet in the NMC version. The 1973 Argo edition has been uploaded to YouTube.
Another superb work heard at the 1970 Festival was ‘serial’ composer Humphrey Searle’s Zodiac Variations for small orchestra, op.53. The title is a little bit of a misnomer. The listener will hardly be conscious of any huge musical difference between, say ‘Capricorn’ and ‘Cancer’. Searle does not seem to have used any esoteric ideas for the characterisation of the various ‘star signs’: the piece never strives for pictorial realism.’
The theme, which is a short passage of 12 bars is followed by 12 short variations. Searle has explained that each succeeding variation uses notes from the preceding one, but also adds new material, thus making the entire work ‘cumulative’. The structural organisation is largely serial, but not pedantically so. Zodiac Variations is scored for two oboes, (second doubling for cor anglais), two horns and strings. The work, composed as a festival commission, was dedicated to the Festival Director, John Manduell.
The Variations were premiered at Cheltenham on 7 July 1970 by the Orchestra Nova conducted by Meredith Davies who was deputising at short notice for Lawrence Foster. Gerald Larner, clearly finding no musical correlation with he heavens has gone as far to suggest that ‘a new title may reveal a different work.’ (Musical Times September 1970). He was not impressed with the ill-prepared and discouraging performance.’
In 2016, Lyrita Records (REAM 1130) issued a CD dedicated to Searle’s music. It featured the Third and Fifth Symphonies, Labyrinth for orchestra and a remastering of the premiere of the Zodiac Variations. Listening to this work today, seems to defy Larner’s negative comments. I find that it is an exhilarating and often quite beautiful work, that sounds to me admirably realised.
To be concluded…