Thursday 2 May 2013

Thea Musgrave’s Chamber works for oboe in fine performances on a new release from Harmonia Mundi

Thea Musgrave (b.1928) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and studied at the University of Edinburgh and later at the Paris Conservatoire, where she spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger.

On her return to Britain, she established herself in London as a prominent member of British musical life with her orchestral, choral, operatic, and chamber works. In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Soon after she married the American violist and opera conductor Peter Mark , and has resided in the U.S. since 1972.

She has received the Koussevitzky Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and has been recognized with honorary degrees by Old Dominion University (Virginia), Smith College, Glasgow University and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She was made a C.B.E. on the Queen's New Year's Honour List in January 2002. As Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York from September 1987-2002, Musgrave has guided and interacted with many new and gifted young student composers.

Musgrave has consistently explored new means of projecting essentially dramatic situations in her music. It is, therefore, not surprising that her focus on the lyric and dramatic potential of music should have led her into the field of opera, writing, to date, ten operas.

In addition to her operatic works, Musgrave has written many orchestral works including a Concerto for Orchestra (1967), a Clarinet Concerto (1969) and a Concerto for Horn (1971), choral works, works for brass and wind band, chamber works, instrumental works, piano works, and electroacoustic works.

Amongst Thea Musgrave’s chamber works are a number that feature the oboe and it is these that are included on a new release from Harmonia Mundi Nicholas Daniel (oboe)  is joined on this new disc by Joy Farrall (clarinet), Emer McDonough (flute) , James Turnbull (oboe) , Huw Watkins (piano)  and members of the Chilingirian Quartet  Levon Chilingirian (violin), Susie Mészáros (viola) and Philip de Groote (cello). 
HMU 907568
Night Windows for oboe and piano (2007) was commissioned by the International Double Reed Society and is dedicated to Nicholas Daniel who gave the first performance at the Society’s conference in Birmingham in 2009. Night Windows is the title of a painting by Edward Hopper (1882-1967)  that is reproduced on the cover of this CD and gave rise to Musgrave’s work. In five parts, Loneliness has a keening oboe melody above a piano accompaniment in this quietly melodic piece.  Anger is quite a showpiece for the oboe with a not inconsiderable piano part, both brilliantly played. There is beautifully affecting Nostalgia where the oboe and piano weave around each other with some beautifully controlled oboe playing from Nicholas Daniel and Despair, is beautiful but bleak, in a melody that rises to a desperate climax before settling back to quiet despair. The work ends with Frenzy, another piece to challenge the oboist full of rapid passages.

Musgrave’s Impromptu No. 1 for flute and oboe (1967) opens with a slightly more modernist sound and uses aleatoric techniques (where some element of the composition is left to chance or to the determination of its performer) that give a freedom of expression to the players. There are some terrific sounds from the players, Nicholas Daniel and Emer McDonough.

The Impromptu No. 2 for flute, oboe and clarinet (1970) is longer than the second Impromptu and gives much rhythmic freedom, challenging the players in writing of considerable intricacy and, indeed, virtuosity. This is a simply stunning performance from Nicholas Daniel, Joy Farrall and Emer McDonough.

Cantilena for oboe, violin viola and cello (2008) is introduced by the strings in a lyrical theme before the oboe gently enters, joining in the theme and slowly decorating the tune which it harmonically changes until introducing a new theme. This leads to a climax before falling back to a quiet restatement of the original them and a quiet coda. Nicholas Daniel and the members of the legendary Chilingirian Quartet, Levon Chilingirian (violin), Susie Mészáros (viola) and Philip de Groote (cello) are superb.

Niobe for oboe and tape (1987), commissioned by the Park Lane Group in London, deals with the story of Niobe the wife of Amphion, King of Thebes, whose children were slain by Leto, one of the female Titanes and bride of Zeus, for whom she continued to weep. The solo oboe represents Niobe lamenting her dead children and the tape, with distant high voices, chiming bells and gong provides an evocative accompaniment. This is certainly a most effective piece with some strange electronic effects to add atmosphere to the lyrical oboe theme.

Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1960) is in a number of sections played without a break. After an opening section for all three instruments with cadenzas for the wind instruments and a piano solo, the theme is then shown in various colours and textures with a flute solo, oboe solo, before both combine leading to a canon. This short effective work receives a brilliant performance from Nicholas Daniel, Emer McDonough and Huw Watkins.

Take Two Oboes (2008) is a light hearted work that opens with Pompous, a lively theme, with these two fine oboists, Nicholas Daniel and James Turnbull, weaving some wonderful sounds. In Expressive one oboe provides a melody full of lovely timbres whilst the other decorates the theme. Serene has a lovely melody where one oboe seems to provide a counterpoint to the other and the work ends with Frisky, a fun piece, full of spiky rhythms and some great playing.

Nicholas Daniel changes to the cor anglais for the final work on this disc, where he is joined again by Huw Watkins in Musgrave’s Threnody for cor anglais and piano (1997/2005). Opening with chords on the piano and an oboe motif of distinctly oriental feel, Threnody, the composer states, deals with the powerful emotions engendered by loss, with the medieval plainchant for the dead, the Dies Irae being incorporated into certain piano chords. This finely played, beautifully flowing piece makes for a fine end to this disc.

This new recording is another great example of Harmonia Mundi’s commitment to contemporary music. There are fine performances from all the artists and, in particular Nicholas Daniel. The recording is first rate and the informative booklet notes are by the composer.

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