FringeReview UK 2018
BBC Prom 33 Thea Musgrave’s orchestral Phoenix Rising from 1997 gets its Proms premiere, and the Brahms Requiem Op 45 a reading with soloists Golda Shulz and Johan Reuter, with the BBC SO & Chorus, under Richard Farnes.
I’ve not seen Richard Farnes conduct before but on the strength of this he’s up there with the best. And he can command stillness from performers and notably audience alike. The hush that filled the end of both works is testament to a compelling authority and a capacity to let the works speak with sweep, freshness and inevitability. Everything felt right.
BBC Prom 33 contained just the two works and as is customary, no encore for the hard-working BBC orchestras. It would have seemed wrong tonight in any case.
Thea Musgrave’s ninety this year but neither seems it in her new round of commissioned pieces nor perhaps to have aged at all. Since she left for the states exactly half her lifetime ago Musgrave’s been less visible in the UKK, though her native Scotland has championed some works and a few record labels keep her music at least before discerning listeners.
It’s her earlier concertos that proved ground-breaking, where Musgrave’s tonally-inflected modernism married to a theatrical jouissance that meant you could hardly believe it in 1968 when the clarinet in her Clarinet Concerto started wandering around in opposition to the conductor, forming splinter groups with parts of the orchestra. In her 1971 Horn Concerto the horn ensures other horn players start following like a pack of hounds. In works from her 1973 Viola Concerto to operas and chamber concertos and other works, this spatial theatricality lends a 3D sense to all her works and it comes across aurally too. No flattening out.
Her 1997 Phoenix Rising is like several such works almost a concerto for orchestra, but its r sections that have the most say. The name’s from a coffee shop and it’s like a caffeine shot from the start. Evoking the gradual ascent from ashes of a massive and mystic bird, it’s a progress from dark to light in literal but also musically cogent ways. Musgrave’s musical language is lyrically astringent: post-tonal but glitteringly pushing its evocations down a modernist trajectory more kin to later Ligeti than other modernists, with Birtwistle’s theatrical power and a certain tonal residue like a much more rigorous one that James Macmillan might have adopted had he not opted for a powerful post-Shostakovich feel. Musgrave’s more original and mentioning these younger composers reminds one that she got there before they did. Birtwistle must owe her something and he’d probably say so.
The anti-hero is the timpanist and s/he doesn’t stay to the end. Goading the percussion – in four groups here – into violent expressivity start we’re interrupted alter by a keening horn offstage which skews things differently, to a process of mourning, not anger.
The horn and timps create auras and almost fractal edges of shining melodic rims though exploding in a dramatic peak where the horn prevails. The timpanist doesn’t like the appeasing tone here and literally stalks off stage.
The ‘Mysterious’ stage is where Musgrave scores luminosity wit pitched percussion and a caustic lunar stillness from vibraphone glockenspiel and xylophone as well as marimba – hence the shimmering. This subsides peacefully as if the phoenix had spread its wings apparently and with warm lyricism we’re off to a beating passionate climax lulled only in a floating luminescence.
Are there here some distant echoes of the close of the second movement of Debussy’s La Mer? Perhaps the same rising figure coincidentally informs both, and Musgrave’s luminous orchestration takes note as wll have, of Debussy. It’s just a hint but might lend a sense ef the sound-world Musgrave evokes. A beautiful piece to listen to again twice over on the iPlayer.
Brahms was never sure his A German Requiem Op 45 (1865-8) was quite the right title, even when he grew more nationalist. A Human Requiem was his preferred title, but that might be saying too much.
He says it anyway in the opening of this seven-movement masterpiece filled with mourning not just for his mother who died the year it was started, 1865, but for his great mentor Schumann – and Clara Schumann of course. The second movement was the slow scherzo of a symphony Brahms converted into his Piano Concerto No. 1. Agnostic but here at least infinitely compassionate towards those who suffer, Brahms created perhaps the requiem that speaks most truthfully before Britten’s. Only Fauré’s compares on a smaller scale.
The opening and closing choral pieces full of consolatory F major commemorate the mourners then the mourned. Inwards from them we have the most thrilling writing for voices Brahms created, in his second and sixth movements. The second ‘All Flesh is Grass’ is that Schumann movement and we get here at least the sense of abiding sorry and still comfort. The tread and power of the second movement still startles and is almost capped by the penultimate ’For here we have no continuing city’ which its furious expressive choral line, a longer one than the grantic tread of the second.
The two soloists flank the still centre which in a serene waltz invokes an afterlife. So in the third ‘Lord let me know mine end’ where Johan Reuter provides a fine bass-baritone ruminance, is flanked on the other side by Golda Shulz’s luminous and outstandingly expressive ‘And ye now therefore have sorrow’ elicits a glint of consolation and personal loss, perhaps that of Brahms’ much-abused mother.
This unfolding is faultlessly taken by Farnes and his magnificent choral as well as orchestral forces. It’s a superb reading of the Brahms, where hushed prommers waited an age for the final folding of the baton. And in Phoenix Rising, never before programmed, we find another Musgrave classic that Farnes has opened to clarity and expressiveness that the prommers lapped up and apprehended completely.