“THEA MUSGRAVE: Chamber Works for Oboe” = Night Windows for oboe and piano; Impromptu No. 1 for flute and oboe; Impromptu No. 2 for flute, oboe, and clarinet; Cantilena for oboe, violin, viola, and cello; Niobe for oboe and pre-recorded tape; Trio for flute, oboe, and piano; Take Two Oboes; Threnody for English horn and piano – Nicholas Daniel, oboe and English horn/ Joy Farrall, clarinet/ Emer McDonough, flute/ James Turnbull, oboe/ Huw Watkins, piano/ members of Chilingirian Quartet – Harmonia mundi USA HMU 907568, 72:39 ****:
Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (b. 1928) is celebrated for the dramatic nature of her music, which includes nine operas. But even her purely instrumental works, though often abstract in their dramatic references, have that same dramatic intensity of expression. Increasingly, Musgrave has essayed program music, though the programs remain more implicit than explicit; not for her a latter-day tonepoem à la Strauss or Liszt.
Musgrave studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and the earliest works on the current program reflect the restless modernism of Boulanger’s more famous students. In fact, as Musgrave says in her detailed notes, the earliest piece here (but one), Impromptu No. 1 of 1967, “is one of the first works where I used some aleatoric techniques: pitches are given but are played with considerable liberty and rubatao (as in a cadenza), thus heightening the expressiveness of the phrases.” In true impromptu fashion, the players latch onto a short descending phrase that has a sort of desperate, wailing quality about it and spin a series of loose variations on the phrase, which returns as a wild refrain throughout.
In contrast, the opening phrase in Improptu No. 2 of three years later is static, the instruments representing an almost stunned quietness, though soon chattering phrases in all three instruments follow. The next three sections gives each individual instrument a chance to lead the chase: first flute, then clarinet, then oboe. Despite the abstractness of the drama implicit in these pieces, they’re both marked by moments of perturbation and unrest, Impromptu No. 2 having more sections of slow quiet music, though even these sections have more of lament about them than quiet resolve. Both these pieces strike me as a sort of continuation of Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, in which the wind instruments of the orchestra ask increasingly desperate questions about the nature of existence against a backdrop of strings representing the quiet indifference of the universe. In Musgrave’s music, the wind instruments seem to carry on their frenzied questioning, still without so much as a single reassuring answer. But, hey, you can substitute your own interpretation for mine; this is music whose very abstractness invites interpretation—or none at all.
The earliest work on the program, the Trio of 1960, seems far less dramatic to me and if anything more abstract. Here, as Musgrave confesses, her challenges were mainly technical, balancing the three instruments in a satisfying mix, which goal she achieved by dividing the work into sections in which the instruments blend, go their separate ways, and then finally blend again “in the closest possible way – a quick canon. Its academic bearing makes it the least interesting work on the program.
With the exception of Niobe (1987), all the works on the current program were written for oboist Nicholas Daniel, whose relationship with Musgrave began in 1993, with the commissioning of one of her better-known concertos, Helios for oboe and orchestra. Both Niobe and Night Windows of 2007 are in the vein of Musgrave’s more programmatic instrumental music. Night Windows is based on a 1928 painting by American realist painter Edward Hopper; it adorns the cover of this album. The painting shows a woman wrapped in a towel, her back to the viewer, observed through the open windows of her upstairs apartment. As Musgrave suggests, the painting reflects the loneliness and isolation that Hopper found in the American landscape in the years between the world wars; that isolation is reflected in both the solitary woman’s figure and very subtly, in the voyeuristic nature of the scene; the viewer himself is isolated in his solitary vision. Musgrave’s work embraces five movements that reflect on Hopper’s philosophical observation: “Loneliness,” “Anger,” “Nostalgia,” “Despair,” and “Frenzy.”
Musgrave’s Niobe retells the tale of the Queen of Thebes, who stupidly boasted to the goddess Leto of her many children. Leto, having only two children (though two very singular ones—Apollo and Artemis), turned those two children on Niobe’s brood and had them killed to the last. Niobe’s lamenting was so great that the gods changed her into a rock, though the rock continued to weep. Musgrave’s poem pits the lamenting cries of the oboe, representing Niobe, against electronic tape, which seems to represent both the slaying of the children and later, a sort of universal lament for them as bells and tam-tam toll electronically in the background.
All this later music, including the appropriately named Cantilena of 2008, is more lyrical, more varied in its expressiveness without sacrificing Musgrave’s essentially dramatic approach to instrumental music. As far as I’m concerned, the later work represents a satisfying advance over her earlier, more hard-edged modernist style, though there is much to enjoy in the two impromptus as well. The playing by all concerned is eloquent and masterly, and as a seasoned collaborator with Musgrave, Nicholas Daniel leads the way with elegant readings of the oboe and English horn parts. The realistic recording from Champs Hill Music Room in West Sussex places the players at a comfortable distance from the listener, imparting a nice sense of depth. My only slight criticism is that the resonance of the setting tends to accentuate the high end of each instrument’s range, which gets a little taxing after a while. Otherwise, this is an excellent sampling of Musgrave’s chamber music, played (and for the most part recorded) to a fare-thee-well.