Total Immersion: Thea Musgrave – review

Barbican, London

The BBC's three concerts devoted to Thea Musgrave emphasised concepts of narrative, conflict and action in her work

Thea Musgrave's output is much concerned with what she has called the search for "vivid dramatic forms for abstract music". She is, of course, familiar as a stage composer. But the BBC's Total Immersion day devoted to her work – its three concerts given by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – emphasised concepts of narrative, conflict and action in her chamber music, choral music and orchestral works respectively.

Her pieces, irrespective of size, are often conceived spatially. The instrumental Pierrot ceaselessly repositions solo violin and clarinet in relationship to the piano as the players re-enact the triadic relationship between Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin. The Horn Concerto of 1971 finds the soloist seemingly in control of the orchestral horns and trumpets as they move round the auditorium or answer his utterances off-stage.

Literary and artistic references proliferate in her work. The choral Rorate Coeli, inspired by the poetry of William Dunbar, telescopes time to present the three main events of Christian revelation – nativity, resurrection and second coming – simultaneously. The glorious Seasons of 1988 takes us from autumn to summer by way of allusion to paintings in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Turbulent Landscapes celebrates Turner, attaining much of his fluid majesty.

Musgrave's work can provoke ambivalent responses. The complexity and density of her music from the 1960s and 70s can be forbidding as well as thrilling, and the pared down palette of more recent works such as the choral On the Underground, or Green for string orchestra can seem more immediate. There were terrific performances all round, though. The BBCSO were on fine form for Martyn Brabbins, while the BBC Singers sounded exquisite with Paul Brough. Martin Owen was the super-lyrical soloist in the Horn Concerto, and the Guildhall students played with outstanding dexterity and tangible enjoyment.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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