Listen: Thea Musgrave

It’s a rare thing one gets a prompt to immerse oneself in the music of a living composer – that’s normally something reserved for the moment when their death is announced.

Not so today: it’s Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday.

That’s right. A woman composer. Scottish. Alive. 

Here’s the thing. I thought I knew some of Thea Musgrave’s music. I thought there was some music she’d written for clarinet and piano that I’d played for my Grade 5 exam. Turns out I was wrong. Amongst her considerable oeuvre, she’s written a terrifyingly difficult-to-play clarinet concerto, but nothing I immediately recognise from my childhood.

The Horn Concerto is more engaging on a first listen. Less oppressive. Less of a battle between solo instrument and orchestral accompaniment, compared to the clarinet concerto. But across both these works there are defining characteristics: rich textures; demanding rhythmic ideas; peril.

What held my attention during my celebratory listen to some of her works on Spotify was Monologue for Solo Piano – awkward in terms of its musical material yet fitting for a complex indecipherable world. In Monologue for Solo Piano it’s as though Musgrave is able to fill in the blanks and make the world seem ever so slightly more bearable. 

After that, the Excursions, Eight Duets for Piano, recall the composer’s Scottish roots with charm and simplicity. There’s a hint of the southern states of America (Musgrave has lived in the States since 1972) in movement four – The Drunken Driver. I adore the simplicity of the movement that followers – The Sunday Driver – and the Camberwick Green-style industry of Roadside Repairs. The penultimate movement – Fog on the Motorway – is an arrestingly beautiful depiction. 

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Listen: Litolff’s Scherzo

Vicki (that’s not her pictured above) and I know each other of old. She’s part of my musical past.

We met up last week. There was wine. We gossiped about composers, tenors in vests and journalists. Then we drank more wine, during which I talked a lot about me. The perfect evening. The world feels right when Vicki and I natter.

Vicki has an amazing capacity for detail. She loves detail. She soaks it up. She can recall it on demand and with magical precision. 

Hundreds of years ago when we both worked together she introduced me to some very important recordings back in the day when she ran a music shop and I ran an orchestra. Classic CDs like DG’s Verklarte Nacht from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Hely Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, and most importantly of all, Test Card Classics Volume 1 on Chandos.

Mid-way through an extended recollection from our formative years, I splutter, “What was that piano music you played me twenty years ago? Classic FM used to play it on a loop. It was a Concerto or something. Can’t remember how it goes, but I remember I liked it a lot. It has a piano in it.

“Litolff.”

Litolff’s scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No.4, written in 1852, in fact.

This isn’t a no-brainer for inclusion in the ‘Listen’ thread. There is some awkwardness with this piece. 

The title bothers me for a start. It’s a shit title Litolff. I think it might even be a tautology. It’s either a concerto or a symphony Litolff darling. It can’t be both. Make up your mind. 

Anyway, let’s not get too bogged down in the detail. Musically, it’s weak too. It’s musical froth. Little development. A musical distraction. A showpiece. It’s fireworks. It’s nonsense. All fur coat and no knickers.

But dear God I adore it. It somehow manages to be more Murder She Wrote than the Murder She Wrote theme tune. More Sorcerers Apprentice than the Sorcerers Apprentice. All peril and jeopardy, taken on by haphazard buffoonery and finished off with a defiant two fingers.

I remember listening to it a lot back in Aldeburgh twenty odd years ago. It’s only now – a week after I’ve been reunited with it – I’m beginning to understand why. It was a musical anecdote to the repertoire I was exposed to at the Festival. As a recent graduate, there wasn’t much I was hearing I instantly recognised. Listening felt like hard work because the music I heard was always unfamiliar. My listening strategy hadn’t developed. I wasn’t curious enough. Everything seemed rather worthy. 

Up pops Litolff’s Scherzo (and Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Song) and suddenly music seems able to not only communicate its message with immediacy but also be entertaining too. In amongst a lot of worthiness, tightly written entertainment shone through like much-needed light relief. The musical equivalent of an irreverent young sibling providing a pep-me-up during an otherwise dull weekend staying with your parents boring friends.

How does it do that given that the musical idea doesn’t go through much development? I reckon its down to the endless key changes the piece cycles through, maintaining a sense of perpetual motion throughout. And it’s the way it seemingly crashes to an end, cascading back down the scale towards its unequivocal conclusion.

It shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t really sustain repeat listens. But it does. And that means it has a certain magic to it. Something to keep in the back pocket for that moment when you’re in need of a pick-me-up.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

Listen: Alfred Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue (1965)

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Active engagement with works of art. Special treats.

I don’t think I’ll ever lose touch with my latest new discovery. Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue isn’t something I’d necessarily have sought out, still less imagined I’d ever enjoy. But because I very nearly didn’t hear it (and because of what followed after it), this particular new listen is so noteworthy as to make it an unlikely signature tune.

I’d originally thought that pianist Yulia Ryabova’s Goldsmith’s recital in nearby Deptford Town Hall was at 7.30pm not 7.00pm. I’d got the venue right. That much I’d read correctly in this month’s edition of Lewisham Life magazine. But when I arrived at 7.10pm I discovered I was in fact late by ten minutes.

When I did make it into the auditorium (the sound of applause signalling what I thought meant the interval), I discovered that Yulia was about to play something else. I sat down quickly in one of the few remaining seats I could find. At which point she started playing the Improvisation and Fugue.

Schnittke is a composer who loves sounds, it seems to me. He appreciates the meditative opportunities that arise from the percussive and tonal qualities the piano can create. He’s a master storyteller. Listening to this is not unlike watching an unfamiliar play by Shakespeare. There is a grand implied narrative to the whole creation which makes the work surprisingly accessible. I hear rain. I also marvel in his obvious passion for melodic complexity.

When the applause starts up again and the pianist stands to take a bow, I applaud and casually look around the room to see how enthusiastically everyone else is clapping. (I tend to do that at concerts.)

That’s when I’m completely taken by surprise by the sight of someone I went to school sat on the back row. We’ve not seen each other for 35 years. Someone I used to share car journeys to and from school when I was a kid in Suffolk.

During the short interval we catch-up as much as we possibly can given the time available. I privately marvel at how he hasn’t aged, envy his scarf, and wonder whether I’ll be able to pull off pumps as convincingly as he can when I’m the age he is. I doubt it.

 

Alfred Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue is available via Idagio or Spotify.

Listen: Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Active engagement with works of art. Special treats.

Can an unfamiliar work act as a mirror to your own emotions and a smooth ride to some other state?

I think it might. Elgar’s Piano Quintet is my gateway.

Some background might be useful.

Just last week I wrote about something I love. I explained I’d turned my back on it.

This wasn’t, as some thought it might be, a brutal act of betrayal on my former employer, but a desperate bid to draw a veil on a thing I love which has commanded a lot of my emotional energies. I wasn’t having a pop at the BBC, I explained repeatedly to a former colleague. I was shining a light on how my connection with the television programme (such as it is) needed to come to an end.

I felt terribly hurt. All weekend. Stupid I know. I assumed I’d made myself clear. But the exchange suggested my copywriting skills had been woefully misleading. Had I been responsible for someone else’s hurt? Fuck.

Elsewhere on the internet, Fiona Harvey retweets a video published by Youth Music. It documents the various different ways music impacts us psychologically. It’s a fascinating watch. It gets me thinking. Is it possible to identify an emotional need – in this case, the need for healing – and find that through a serendipitously discovered and unfamiliar work? Spoiler: yes it is.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet written in 1918 is both a cathartic listen and a spirited call to arms for change. Not only in that it resists the saccharin sentimentality or nauseating jingoism most assume as Elgar’s trademark. The Quintet on a first listen is transformative fuelled by a infectious sense of determination.

The first movement is all Brahms. Ravishing. Lush. It might even be more Brahms than Brahms. Part way through there’s a hint of something Spanish. But, served up throughout is a lean kind of courage followed by a pallet cleansing dish of hope. The thick chords in the piano accompaniment nourish while the accompanying string texture is a much-needed visceral addition. The movement ends with me thinking Elgar has something up his sleeve. I like the idea of having something up your sleeve.

Solitude follows in the second movement. I had assumed that something in the minor key would soothe me because it would reflect how I felt. But it was gratifyingly uplifting.

This was the point in time when I started moving the office furniture around, pushing the unused rolls of wrapping paper in behind the bookshelf and in the process, knocking down the pen pot. 15 years worth of lanyards fell to the floor as well.

I haven’t looked at those lanyards in years. God only knows why I’ve hung onto them. They’re nothing more than moments in time when I felt validated by some other mysterious force. I loved every single experience and opportunity those lanyards won me, but it’s time for them to be stored away.

Come the third movement, I’m awash with this idea of change and memories from my past confirm I have a proven track record in, from time to time, acting on instinct and shifting things around.

I end up of thinking of Emma. A fresher’s week ‘get-together’. She was wearing pyjamas, I wasn’t. Things got a bit intense. I left in the middle of the night. She follows me to the bus stop in her pyjamas. ‘Why did you have to leave? Couldn’t you have waited until the morning?’ I may have asked her to ‘back off’ at the campus bus stop. It was all very strange.

I only recall this odd memory now because of what happened next, twenty-six years ago. After things had died down a bit between us, Emma drops by my room.

She passes comment on the fact that in the intervening period since she and I last spent any time in each other’s company alone, I’d reorganised my room.

“Well, that says everything doesn’t it? You told me you liked to move things around in your room when things got a bit stale.” I rememeber wanting to ask her not to judge me quite so much. After all, the layout was more efficient this way around.

There’s a pile of lanyards on the floor. I’m going to go through them, decide what I want to ditch and then store them away in a box so I don’t have to see them again. That way I’ll have a little more space for other ideas. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s a healthy thing.

The speaker is closer to the desk too. I don’t have to get up to switch it on or change the CD. The podcasting stuff is stored away neatly underneath the clarinets on the bookshelf. And there are three less Eurovision box files to have to look at too.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet is an agent of change. Exactly what I need right now.

Listen to the Elgar Piano Quintet in A Minor on Idagio or Spotify

Listen: Herbert Howells’ Oboe Sonata

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Special treats.

I was first introduced to Herbert Howells oboe sonata last Saturday afternoon in the Southbank Centre.

It was the perfect introduction. Unassuming. Throwaway. Blink and you’d have missed it.

“The Herbert Howells is amazing,” said Jess. That was the moment I was hooked in.

There was something in the way Jess talked about the work – an unequivocal enthusiasm – that made me want to listen to it as soon as I got home.

That’s what I’m most attuned to at the moment. When people mention works or composers in such a way that I’m taken by surprise. I don’t need to gasp or articulate that surprise. It’s more subtle than that. It’s more like someone flicking a switch and a beam of light cutting through the darkness. It demands attention. It promises everything.

Herbert Howells’ sonata doesn’t disappoint. It’s complex. An epic tale. A tussle between two characters. Once they’ve first reconciled their differences, then they become unified. After that they embark on a journey in the outside world, only to discover that together they face something far darker than what they thought they were confronting in the first place.

I’m not entirely sure whether that’s what the composer actually intended. To a certain extent I don’t really care.

Especially compelling is the sense of resolution – tentative and fragile – at the end of the second movement. If we’re talking in Dahl-esque short story terms, then the composer could have easily brought the work to the end of the second movement. Leave us hanging Herbert. Leave us wondering what happens next. But instead, we do hear what happens next, and what we discover is that there isn’t a sense of triumph over evil. No. That would be a little simplistic. The real world is, accordingly to Herbert Howells, a little bleak.

That third movement is the daring pivot point. From this point on, instead of chasing and reacting to the piano, the oboe takes the lead. From the third movement on, it’s the piano that chases the musical material. Power reassigned.

But it’s a pyrrhic victory for the oboe. The epilogue is bleak.

Instead there’s a sense of resolve: however grim the world actually is, at least both oboe and piano have each other’s backs.

 

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