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Musgrave: Chamber works for oboe
Rich and powerful musical language and a strong sense of drama have made Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (b.1928) one of the most respected and exciting contemporary voices. This recording by star oboist Nicholas Daniel features a collection of Musgrave's chamber works for oboe composed between 1960 and 2009 and includes several works written especially for Daniel. Joined by flutist Emer McDonough, oboist James Turnbull, clarinetist Joy Farall, pianist Huw Watkins and members of the Chilingirian Quartet, Daniel plays eight works in a variety of combinations ranging from duos to quartets.
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The earliest work is the Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1960). To my ears it sounds academically atonal, as was the fashion then. And yet, it's not at all harsh or unmusical. The inherent lyricism of Musgrave might be buried, but it's lying very close to the surface.
The featured piece, Night Windows for oboe and piano, is more recent, dating from 2007. Based on a Edward Hopper painting of the same name (which appears on the cover), Night Windows is a series of musical sketches, each one delineating a different emotion: loneliness anger nostalgia despair and frenzy. The sparse piano part coupled with the single-line of the oboe present these emotions in a simple and straight-forward manner. Here Musgrave's melodic gifts are to the fore, making this work quite effective and appealing.
There are some shorter and lighter works on the album, such as the two impromptus and Take Two Oboes, which is just some good natured fun.
For me, works for live performer and tape don't age well, but Musgrave's Niobe is an exception. Although composed in 1987 for oboe and tape, its atmospheric and ethereal sounds have a timeless aspect.
The Threnody for cor anglais and piano makes a fitting close to the program. The cor anglais has a warmer and darker sound than the oboe, an the change in timber from the previous oboe pieces almost serves as a coda. The work was commissioned to make the passing of a beloved teacher, Musgrave effectively conveys deep sorrow and a sense of loss without sounding maudlin or trite.
Daniel plays with a clean, clear tone and is in complete command of this material. He has the ability to be warm and expressive, and to play aggressively and with great agility as the music demands. An unusual but very compelling portrait of a modern master.