Scottish National Orchestra
Sir Alexander Gibson [Concerto for Orchestra]
Thea Musgrave [Horn Concerto]
London Symphony Orchestra
Norman Del Mar [Clarinet Concerto]
Concerto for Orchestra and Horn Concerto recorded January 1974 in City Hall, Glasgow; Clarinet Concerto recorded January 1972 in London Opera Centre; Monologues and Excursions recorded September 1971 in Kingsway Hall, London
Lyrita – Thea Musgrave
Wednesday, November 07, 2007 LYRITA SRCD.253
Reviewed by Mike Wheeler
Scottish-born, but living in America since 1972, Thea Musgrave (born 1928) has been a distinguished but somewhat under-appreciated figure in contemporary music for some fifty years or so. It’s good to see Lyrita, in the act of casting its re-issue net wider than its own back-catalogue, bringing three of her distinguished concertos back into circulation.
Concerto for Orchestra, of 1967, was written in response to a commission from the BBC that arrived after she had had a dream of an orchestral piece in which the clarinet “went crazy”. The work is in a single movement with a satisfying shape that emerges from its soft, rustling opening, gradually accumulating weight, momentum and density. At a climactic point just over half-way through, the clarinet is instructed to stand for a prominent solo, including a virtuoso cadenza, and start giving directions to an increasing number of solo players who join to form a rebellious splinter group playing in its own tempo, giving cues to each other (and even the conductor – in how many other works does that happen?).
The clarinet’s role in that work leads naturally to a full-blown concerto for the instrument, which followed in 1969. Here the soloist moves around the orchestra (his/her path being mapped out in a diagram at the front of the score) to interact with various smaller groups of instruments, including a piano-accordion which emerges in the work’s later stages almost as an alter ego to the clarinet. Where Concerto for Orchestra starts quietly, the Clarinet Concerto erupts in a torrent of exhilarating energy well sustained for much of the work’s first half, and resumed after a tranquil and luminously-scored central section. A rival version from Cala (CACD 1023 – not currently available) has Victoria Soames Samek as soloist, with the composer conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and setting a slightly less frenetic pace. The Cala recording is generally brighter, but with the accordion considerably recessed so that its important dialogues with the solo clarinet scarcely register.
Like the Clarinet Concerto, the Horn Concerto, from 1971, is played here by the soloist for whom it was written. Again there is a spatial element involved, in the interaction between the soloist and the orchestral horn players. These latter start from their normal position, apart from one who begins the work off-stage; later all four to move to positions around the hall, taking their cues from the soloist to send horn tone ringing round the auditorium. The concerto includes several extended passages of freely notated rhythms, a technique that Musgrave had begun to discover for herself in the 1960s, apparently unaware of the similar developments in Lutosławski’s work. The shimmering soundworld that results is one of the concerto’s special characteristics.
The CD is completed by two keyboard works. The composer herself plays Monologue, a short piece in a number of continuous sections dating from 1960, in which her feel for instrumental drama is already asserting itself.
Finally comes Excursions, a set of eight piano-duet miniatures for which she is joined by Malcolm Williamson. French echoes surface from time to time, particularly in the Satie-like fourth and eighth pieces, ‘Drunken Driver’ and ‘Backseat Driver’. The work offers a delightful glimpse of the composer at her most relaxed and engaging.
The performances all carry the utmost conviction and the recordings, from the early 1970s, are both warm and detailed, that of the Horn Concerto being particularly vivid. A CD can’t, of course, give us the important visual element in the three concertos (a DVD would be invaluable but I don’t imagine such a thing is high on any record company’s list of priorities at the moment), and of course the Horn Concerto cries out for surround sound, though we do get a strong sense of the spatial separation of the four orchestral horns in this recording.
This is one of the most important discs in the current wave of Lyrita issues, a must for anyone interested in British composers of the post-Britten generation, and well worth investigating by anyone else.