Review of Thea Musgrave: Chamber works for oboe (Harmonia Mundi), Classics Today, May 2013
Thea Musgrave came to the attention of music lovers through a series of recordings (mostly on Arabesque in the U.S.) that appeared around the late 1970s and early ’80s, above all her opera Mary Queen of Scots. Since then her work has appeared on a variety of labels, often on collections devoted to women composers. A genuine talent, it’s good to see her getting a whole album to herself, even if chamber music featuring solo oboe is a somewhat esoteric corner of the repertoire.
Judging from the sound of these works, Musgrave must have been relieved when the serial movement collapsed, since her more recent pieces (Night Windows, for oboe and piano; Cantilena, for oboe and string trio; Take Two Oboes; and Threnody for English horn and piano) are notably more melodic and fluent than the earlier ones (the two Impromptus, for flute and oboe, and for flute, oboe, and clarinet respectively; and the Trio for flute, oboe, and piano). Not that these early pieces aren’t well-written—they are, but they also are less approachable than the later pieces. Somewhere in between comes Niobe, for oboe and tape, which is actually very moving and atmospheric, the taped sounds providing an imaginative and above all musical accompaniment to the oboe’s lament.
One thing is certain: the performances are magnificent. 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.
That said, I wouldn’t play all 72 minutes of this program at a sitting. For all of Daniel’s artistry, the timbre of the oboe is still fatiguing in large doses, and the engineering favors the instrument (with its attendant clicking valves). So take it in stages. Even with the understanding that this disc is likely to appeal to a limited audience, it’s good to see Musgrave, now in her mid 80s, still going strong.
View the original review here