Thea Musgrave: Phoenix Rising

At the forefront of contemporary music for over six decades, Thea Musgrave is one of the leading composers of her generation. She has conducted many of her own pieces on both sides of the Atlantic. Her vividly imaginative and well-crafted scores resonate with audiences worldwide. Fellow composer Judith Weir has astutely ascribed Musgrave’s exceptionally rich and varied catalogue of works to ‘a capacity for constant self-renewal combined with a shrewd awareness of what is currently happening in musical style’.
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This disc was issued in late 2018 to mark the 90th birthday of Thea Musgrave (born 27 May 1928). Lyrita has previously done this composer proud with a release devoted to several of her orchestral scores, albeit in performances set down in the 1970s, and also, more recently, a live performance from 1978 of her opera, Mary Queen of Scots (1977). The present recordings, however, are brand new and the works chosen are quite recent.

The longest offering is the song cycle Poets in Love. This consists of seventeen songs which are intended to be performed without a break. Musgrave selected a very wide range of poems in which the poets offer a variety of views and reflections on love. The chosen authors include Robert Burns, Goethe, Hölderlin, Rilke, Shakespeare, Shelley and Tasso. An interesting feature of the score is that with one exception each poem is set in its original language – though it is permissible for the singers to use English translations if necessary, though that’s not done here. So, the listener hears settings in seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian and Spanish. Although only English translations are provided, I must congratulate Lyrita on the presentation: the poems that are not in English are printed with each line of poetry having the English translation in bold type immediately underneath, so following the texts is very easy.

Eight of the songs are set as duets for the two singers and in one more, a setting of Goethe’s Zeitmass for baritone, the tenor joins in, singing several times the last line of the preceding poem. The other songs are solos for one or other of the singers. The vocal lines are lyrical and expressive and I found the way in which the poems are set was convincing. Both singers do well, though purely as a matter of personal taste I found Nathan Vale’s tone rather narrow. The piano parts, splendidly played by Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, are full of interest and incident. Because the songs are intended to be performed as a seamless whole Lyrita don’t track them separately. However, they do break them into four groups, which is helpful, and each of these groups is allocated its own track.

Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland is an interesting work. It was a BBC Proms commission and was premiered during the 2012 season, appropriately enough by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The piece requires a very large orchestra, including triple woodwind, full brass and a substantial percussion section. There’s a very prominent role for the orchestra’s tuba though, we read in the notes, the player is seated in his/her usual position in the brass section, though the musician is directed to stand at one point. Here the featured player is Daniel Trodden, principal tuba with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The composer says that the piece is light-hearted. That may be so, but don’t expect any gimmickry. Equally, don’t expect any lessening of Musgrave’s compositional skill or her inventiveness as an orchestrator. Essentially, the tuba represents the Loch Ness Monster, ‘Nessie’. At the start of the work the music clearly portrays the deep, mysterious Loch and from its depths Nessie audibly rises. Once the monster is on the surface, considerable dexterity is required from the tuba player but it’s noticeable also that a good deal of the writing for the instrument is songful. At 4:42 the music becomes playful in nature and this episode leads to an accompanied cadenza (about 7:00). That cadenza is abruptly halted by a series of col legno gestures by the string section – you almost wonder if Nessie is being admonished. Playtime over, Nessie gradually descends back into the depths of the Loch and the piece ends quietly. I enjoyed this Postcard, not least for its highly imaginative and colourful scoring. It’s a fun piece.

The real prize, however, is Phoenix Rising. This is another BBC commission. Sir Andrew Davis, the work’s dedicatee, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered it in February 1998. I first heard it when the same orchestra, this time conducted by Richard Farnes, played it at the 2018 Proms to mark Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday. My next encounter with it was when I first heard part of this studio recording in the
MusicWeb International Listening Studio in December. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to study it more closely in preparing this review.

Once again, Musgrave writes for a large orchestra and there’s a theatrical aspect to the score, especially in the treatment of the principal timpanist and a solo horn. Paul Conway explains in his notes that the timpanist represents the forces of darkness while the horn player, who we first hear playing offstage, stands for “the distant voice of hope that leads to rebirth and life.” Apparently, the composer was inspired by seeing a sign outside a coffee shop in Virginia depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes. The work divides into five sections and while Lyrita present the work on a single track they do indicate the time at which point each section starts, which is very helpful. The sections are ‘Dramatic’ – ‘Desolate’ – ‘Aggressive’ – ‘Mysterious’ – ‘Peaceful’.

In ‘Dramatic’ the music is dynamic and exciting. Musgrave uses an arresting palette of orchestral colours and she makes terrific use of drums to impel the music forward. Here, it’s worth mentioning that my Seen and Heard colleague, Alan Sanders, who
reviewed the 2018 Proms performance remarked on how judiciously Musgrave deploys the percussion throughout the score: This, he felt, was in contrast to the blatant way in which percussion is all too often used in contemporary works; I do so agree. After all this energy the music subsides into ‘Desolate’ where we hear a plaintive cor anglais solo. In this passage of the work the orchestral writing is subdued but it’s constantly intriguing. Gradually, from about 6:50 we hear the offstage horn – by the end of this section he has made his way onto the stage.

In the ‘Aggressive’ section the nature of the music lives up to the billing. A feature of this fairly short, disputatious section, is that the horn player and the timpanist egg on their colleagues in their respective sections to confront each other musically. All this goes on against a strident orchestral background. By contrast, ‘Mysterious’ is scored with consummate delicacy, with much use being made of the harp and of quiet but telling percussion. The music is hushed and it’s this passage that depicts the Phoenix rising from the ashes. The final section, ‘Peaceful’ features a good deal of warm, singing music, again resourcefully scored. Here the solo horn is prominent. Eventually (from 17:40), the music rises to an urgent, pulsating climax before sinking back again into a restful mood. In the calm closing couple of minutes Musgrave’s scoring is as ravishing as anything we’ve heard. Here, the orchestral palette is shimmering and highly refined with important but gentle solos for violin, cor anglais and timpani.

Phoenix Rising is an astonishing score. I have no hesitation in saying that it’s the most resourceful and imaginative contemporary orchestral work that I’ve heard in ages. The level of invention is remarkable. It’s a piece that, I find, grabs your attention from the start and never lets go. Moreover, at no time does Thea Musgrave overplay her hand. The work is concise and although there are some very fully scored passages you feel these are always there to serve their purpose; once the point has been made the composer moves on. Consequently, she says all she has to say in twenty-one minutes and the listener is left completely satisfied. The piece receives a magnificent performance from William Boughton and the BBCNOW: the work is played with great commitment and skill. Their cause is helped by the splendid, impactful recording.

It only remains to say that Paul Conway’s booklet essay is outstanding both in the provision of biographical detail and the descriptions of the works concerned. The whole disc is rewarding but Phoenix Rising
is something special. MusicWeb

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