This CD contains three works by Thea Musgrave. Two are fairly recent but the first, and to my mind the most interesting, dates back to 1973. It’s called Rorate coeli desuper! It’s a setting of text by the 16th century Scots poet William Dunbar interspersed with short Latin sections. The text is given, as sung, in Middle Scots and Latin but no translation. It’s a wonderfully varied and eclectic piece scored for five soloists and SATB choir. It is, I suppose, a sort of modern polyphony with lots of extended vocal techniques including droning, chattering, hissing and a very high soprano duet that imitates bird song. The text is wonderfully evocative. Here’s one verse as an example:
Done is a battle on the dragon black,
Our campion Christ confoundit has his force; The gates of hell are broken with a crack, The sign triumphal raisit is of the Cross,
The devils trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The souls are borrowit and to the bliss can go, Christ with his blood our ransom does endorse: Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.
It’s really quite a difficult piece to sing but the 36 strong New York Virtuoso Singers conducted by Harold Rosenbaum do a great job (the soloists are taken from the choir). Very much worth exploring.
The second piece on the disk is the Missa Brevis of 2017. It’s scored for SATB choir and organ. It’s a much more conventional piece with the five traditional sections set in more traditional and rather meditative fashion. It’s a well written piece but I didn’t get too excited by it.
The final piece, written in 2014, is The Voices of Our Ancestors. It sets a varied series of texts from various languages in English translation. They date from 1500 BCE to around 1200 CE and deal with the eternal questions of Life, the Universe and Everything (with a dollop of Death on the side). It’s scored for narrator, assorted soloists, organ, choir and brass quintet. It’s designed as a performance piece with participants moving around in a church setting though that doesn’t really come off in a stereo recording. Maybe someone could record an SACD version? It’s in a fairly meditative vein again for the most part though it gets more playful in the last three texts which deal with the advisability of enjoying yourself before old age and death spoil everything.
Rorate Coeli and The Voices of Our Ancestors were recorded live on 27th May 2018 at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York. Missa Brevis was recorded live at Advent Lutheran Church, NYC, on 13th April 2019. Both locations have a rather resonant, “churchy” acoustic that suits the music pretty well. The recordings are certainly crisp and clear enough. Full texts and much useful material about the works and the composer accompany the disk.
This CD is a nice introduction to the choral music of one of Scotland’s leading composers. Rorate Coeli in particular, is a work I feel I shall go back to several times!