Chamber music for oboe in the modern camp is not precisely a commonplace, at least on disk, but Thea Musgrave's work in this realm is extensive and well worth hearing. Oboist Nicholas Daniel skillfully devotes himself to a full disk of it on the recent Chamber Works for Oboe (Harmonia Mundi 907568).
The music was written over a wide period of time, 1960-2009, but reflects a consistency of inspiration and craft on the composer's part. Her most recent works here were written specifically for Nicholas Daniel: "Cantilena," "Night Windows," "Take Two Oboes" and an arrangement of "Threnody" for cor anglais. Other winds, chamber ensemble, piano, and electronics combine with Nicholas's beautiful playing, with a sound ravishing, expressive and satisfyingly precise.
Perhaps this may not be a recital that would ordinarily be on your list of must haves--but it gives listeners a full, beautifully wrought program, a testament to the brilliance of Musgrave and Daniel. Recommended. Grego Applegate Edwards, www.classicalmodernmusic.com, 4/17/2013
Nicholas Daniel is an amazing artist, with a sweet tone, even throughout its range, limitless breath control, and an amazing dynamic range. He can play at a genuine pianissimo, even at the very top of his register. There are some tricky unison passages in the second movement of Night Windows for oboe and piano that are stunningly well articulated. Musgrave couldn’t ask for a more passionate or expert advocate, and it’s easy to understand why these later works were written with Daniel in mind. His colleagues are equally adept, especially Joy Farrall on clarinet, and Huw Watkins, who provides’ sensitive piano accompaniments.
it’s good to see Musgrave, now in her mid 80s, still going strong.
David Hurwitz, www.classicstoday.com, 5/25/2013
...the opening phrase in Improptu No. 2 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.
[...] 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.
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. This is an excellent sampling of Musgrave’s chamber music, Lee Passarella, www.audaud.com, 6/21/2013