Thea Musgrave's music continues to receive deserved and overdue attention on disc. The New York Virtuoso Singers do Musgrave proud, closely recorded in precise, pure-toned and committed performances.
…tonal variation is to be found in the instrumentally supported Black Tambourine - from glissandos performed directly on the piano strings to Mozart quotations integrated into the texture of 'My Grandmother's Love Letters'. The instruments also bring a dynamic range not available to the voices alone: particularly effective in the climax to 'Repose of Rivers'. 'A Medieval Summer' is perhaps the most compelling overall structure here, combining several texts and idioms. In particular, a relatively intact Sumer is icumen in sits extremely well within Musgrave's own harmonic language.Carl Rosman, International Record Review, 4/1/2005
Although long-resident in the United States, Thea Musgrave is one of Britain's best-known and most distinguished women composers. Were there any doubt of this the American Bridge label's disc of six choral works would soundly expel them. The largest single span is a setting of the opening section of Auden's 'Christmas Oratorio' For the Time Being. Auden wrote the poem for Britten but neither he, nor any later collaborator (including Henze), set anything more than small sections. Musgrave's cantata, titled in full For the Time Being: Advent, dates from 1986 and extends for over 25 minutes. A rich a cappella choral tapestry, its three large spans eloquently catch the ambiguities and uncertainties of Auden's wartime verse. In the central span the chorus turn accompanist to a narrator - here Michael York, with nicely judged delivery avoiding the histrionic - who declaims, with increasing emotion, the second of the section's three spans. The chorus here divide into male and female voices, reprising passages from the first section, towards the close threatening to overwhelm the narrator. This is one of the subtlest settings of Auden I have encountered, on a par certainly with Britten's Our Hunting Fathers and Henze's Sicilian Muses and engaging on a much deeper level than Bernstein's Age of Anxiety Symphony.
There are Brittenish resonances in the third segment of Musgrave's triptych On the Underground (1994), settings of stanzas that over the past 15 years or so have been printed alongside advertisements in London's famed subterranean transport system. A Medieval Summer is, unlike the other two segments, a single span (lasting almost 12 minutes) built around a passage of Chaucer welcoming summer into which other similar estival texts (including Sumer is icumen in, so memorably set by Britten in the Spring Symphony) are woven. As a piece of literature it is impressive enough, but Musgrave's setting catches all the heart and langour of the season. The previous two sets also bear themes, the first On gratitude, love and madness - setting six poets of diverse provenance, including Stevie Smith, Yeats and Emily Dickinson - and the second The Strange and the Exotic, where the anonymous I saw a peacock with a fiery tail and Edwin Morgan's The Subway Piranhas are framed by a couplet of Herrick's.
Those unfamiliar with Musgrave's idiom would do well to start with the cycle Black Tambourine (1986), a cycle of six poems by Hart Crane set for women's chorus, piano and percussion. No two movements have similar textures - the third, Black Tambourine, includes a narrator - with the accompaniment varying from piece to piece. As Malcolm MacDonald points out in the booklet, here Musgrave utilised a more direct melodism than in other works of hers, though the whole set is evocatively harmonised: listen to the glacial opening North Labrador or the delightful miniature fifth movement, Pastorale. The cycle is a tour de force amongst tours de force and sets the New York Singers decidedly on their mettle. They rise to the challenges of all the works here, completed by the tiny part-song John Cook (1963), ably directed by Harold Rosenbaum. Bridge's recording is sympathetic and crystal clear ... a joy to listen to.Guy Rickards, Tempo, 10/1/2005