Two’s Company

Two’s Company [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.1

Nicholas Daniel (oboe) & Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussion)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 31 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although there are notable works for oboe and percussion by Birtwistle and Xenakis, Thea Musgrave’s Two’s Company – the last of the BBC’s commissions for Proms 2007 – could well be the first-ever concerto for the combination (I hope some perspicacious reader will prove me wrong on this). It is the latest in a long line of works by Musgrave to explore what she refers to as the ‘dramatic-abstract’, an approach to form in which spatial movement and physical gestures are enacted by the performers but without programmatic content. Composers who operate in this area (Birtwistle and Xenakis for instance!) often seek to evoke an atavistic connection with the principles of ancient Greek theatre but Musgrave tends more to the urbane and so it is with the new work.

The stage-setting as the performance begins has four percussion stations, two at the front of the smallish orchestra and two at the rear. The percussion soloist occupies the one at the front-right – with no sign of the oboist. The orchestra unfolds a slow, ruminative tapestry of interlocking lines with part-writing of marvellous subtlety. The soloist initially discharges the function of an orchestral percussionist (there are none otherwise), adding delicate splashes of colour on gong and chimes. Enter the oboe soloist from the left of the auditorium, interrupting the orchestral flow with a forlorn soliloquy.

The work then plays out – and thereby delineates its form – as a coy ritual of courtship. The percussionist deploys various strategies to attract the attention of the easily distracted oboist (who has infiltrated the orchestra), moving first to a vibraphone at the rear-right and then to a drum-kit rear-left. Inevitably this latter yields the most propulsive music so far and a catharsis, in the fall-out of which the oboe at last opens up to the percussion and the two – now physically adjacent with the percussionist on marimba – intertwine ever-more closely in an imitative dialogue, finally reaching an unanticipated resolution with a cadence on a major triad.

With the drama of the concerto focussing essentially on the relationship between the two soloists, the role of the orchestra is subordinated to that of facilitator, supplying harmonic fields and melodic patterns in which the soloists work out their drama. The orchestra is in effect the platform on which the soloists perform. From time to time a solo instrument or group calls out from within the orchestra, interacting with the soloists (usually the oboist) in the manner of a subsidiary character or prop.

Without a score I was not sure if the modicum of physical acting – longing glances and at one point the percussionist leading the oboist by the hand – is written into the piece. I could imagine a more hieratic approach to this aspect with all movement formalised in the manner of a Noh play. It is also tempting to speculate how the implied (with these particular performers) heterosexual mating game would play out with other combinations of performer gender!

Musgrave’s compositional art is supremely fluent and almost in danger of being taken for granted these days. The musical language of Two’s Company is elegant, soft-hued, witty and altogether ‘late manner’. Speaking from a recent immersion of my own in the operas of Richard Strauss, if Musgrave’s visceral Horn Concerto is “Elektra”, then Two’s Company was “Capriccio”, a civilised discourse about the nature of discourse.

The soloists could hardly be improved upon. Nicholas Daniel, for whom Musgrave wrote her 1995 oboe concerto Helios, performed miracles of tonal control and effortless virtuosity in his familiar unflappable manner. Evelyn Glennie reined in her sometimes-distracting self-absorption in the service of the greater whole. The writing may not have been the most challenging she has ever worked with but the emotional arc of her part was perfectly captured. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under its Chief Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek contributed a well-drilled underpinning.

My only complaint about Two’s Company is its irritatingly glib title, reminiscent of the kind popular with certain young British composers in the 1980s – Mixed Doubles, Parallel Bars et al. Otherwise I predict a healthy future for the 20-minute work.

I found the performance of Mahler 1 a frustratingly uneven affair.

The should-be magical opening was distinctly earthbound, with ragged unisons, sour tuning and poorly-shaded dynamics, which were also to feature elsewhere in the account. The leaden tempo of the outer panels of the second movement created contrast problems, in that we seemed to be re-treading much of the ground of the first movement and the central Ländler had to be taken at an even slower pace verging on the dirge-like.

Set against that, the dreamy major-key interlude in the third movement was wonderfully tender and the much-deferred peroration of the finale was genuinely thrilling. As was the terrifying beginning of that movement, which seems to presage the birth of modernity in music and was to be so influential on the young Schoenberg.

A serviceable performance overall but Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra had too recently shown what a Mahler performance should really sound like.

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