Turbulent Landscapes

Composer Portrait – Thea Musgrave

Impromptu No.1
In the Still of the Night

Thea Musgrave in conversation with Christopher Cook

Contemporary Consort of the Royal College of Music [Carla Rees (flute), Rebecca Kozam (oboe), Sarah Thurloe (clarinet), Thomas Hankey (viola), Sarah Suckling (cello) & Helen Cole (harp)]

Arena, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 6

Turbulent Landscapes [London premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Symphony No. 4, Op.29 (Inextinguishable)

Stephen Hough (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although resident in the United States for over three decades now, Thea Musgrave has retained a certain presence in British musical life – not least at the Proms, where her oboe concerto, Helios, was heard two years ago. That has proved (or ought to) a welcome addition to its particular repertoire, whereas it is difficult to imagine Turbulent Landscapes receiving other than an occasional revival.

Not that the work, completed in 2003 and drawing its inspiration from paintings by Turner, evinces anything other than the assured writing for instruments and formal ingenuity which have long been hallmarks of Musgrave’s composing. Indeed, the “Composer Portrait” event which preceded the Prom afforded a welcome opportunity to hear three of her many chamber pieces – capably rendered by the Contemporary Consort of the Royal College of Music – during the course of an informative and often entertaining discussion. Certainly the lucid contours of Serenade (1961) for flute, clarinet, viola, cello and harp denotes the benign influence of her teacher Nadia Boulanger, while Impromptu No.1 (1967) for flute and oboe and the more recent In the Still of the Night (1997) for viola are potent reminders of her ability to create abstract drama from out of the essence of the instruments.

An ability evident throughout Turbulent Landscapes, where each of the six movements has either individual or groups of specific musicians standing so as to readily draw attention to certain instruments’ musical prominence – almost as an extension of the ‘concerto for orchestra’ genre. Most impressive were thesecond movement, “The Shipwreck”, which utilised three paintings in a thoughtfully intense evocation of storm, devastation and lament; and the fifth, “16th October 1834”: The Burning of the Houses of Parliament”, with its almost graphically descriptive writing for woodwind and veiled allusions to the National Anthem. None of the other movements was without interest, and it was a pity that the work as a whole left little resonance in terms of its musical distinctiveness. Nor did the performance sound anything other than scrupulously prepared and convincingly played: maybe that revival, if and when it happens, will reveal correspondingly greater substance in the actual content?

Mature Musgrave certainly made an odd juxtaposition with early Rachmaninov – though this being the customary revised (1917) version of the First Piano Concerto (1891) meant that there was nothing tentative or gauche in the work itself. Although it receives a fair number of performances these days, the piece’s relative lack of ‘big tunes’ and short-winded thematic ideas makes for an enjoyable rather than an engrossing listen. Stephen Hough has shown on numerous occasions his identification with this music – and so it proved here, in a lively but considered account which was vigorous and insinuating by turns, and at its best (as is the piece itself) in the melting expression of the slow movement. No lack of rapport, either, with the orchestra and conductor (something often lacking in Hough’s recent recordings of these concertos); and though the bright-orange backdrop and Hough’s own attire threatened to steal the show, the performance had won through by the close.

Three years ago, Osmo Vänskä gave a memorable account of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony with his then orchestra – the BBC Scottish Symphony. Perhaps because he has not had the opportunity to build the same relationship with the BBC Symphony, this performance took a while to get going. Not that there was anything overly tentative about the first movement; only that momentum sounded a little manufactured, with formal components sharply characterised but not quite coalescing into a greater whole. Yet the delightful intermezzo that follows was winsomely played by the BBCSO woodwinds – and, in the third movement, Vänskä drew a searing response from the strings while being mindful not to pre-empt the finale. Emerging in breathless anticipation, this was all one might have hoped for – with duelling timpani vividly to the fore, and the control of musical tension judged to a nicety, so that the apotheosis avoided all trace of bombast as it ‘hit the ground running’ in a surge of irresistible energy.

In short, another triumph (albeit latterly) for Vänskä, whom one hopes will visit the Proms with his Minnesota Orchestra, and for Nielsen’s most visceral symphony. Would that the ‘Stars on Sunday’ mauve-and-violet backdrop foisted on the performance had been less than ‘inextinguishable’!

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