She may now be in her 90th year, but if her 2003 score Turbulent Landscapes is anything to go by then Edinburgh-born composer Thea Musgrave might as well be in her first flush of youth. She is based in America now, but she was in the Usher Hall for this Edinburgh International Festival performance of her work, and her only concession to age seems to have been that she waved to the crowd from her seat rather than walking onto the stage. Creatively, she’s bristling with energy, and this suite of six pieces inspired by Turner paintings was one of the finest, freshest contemporary works I’ve heard in a long time.

Martyn Brabbins © Benjamin Ealovega
Martyn Brabbins
© Benjamin Ealovega

Musgrave’s skill is to find a musical method of evoking the central aspect of Turner’s paintings, and her lifetime of compositional skill shows in her shrewd choices of instrumentation and structure. I loved the incongruously cavorting tuba to represent the sea monster in the first movement, for example, or the swaggering trumpet depicting Napoleon in “War: the Exile and the Rock Limpet”, suggesting that the former emperor is defeated but still unbowed. Musgrave writes for the orchestra with a painter’s skill for the overall texture but also with a keen eye for detail so that critical effects are born up beautifully. The clarinet representing sunrise in the final movement, for example, turns his back to the audience at one point to evoke the impression of the fog closing in, and I loved the gathering snowstorm that dwarfed the mighty Hannibal as he moved his troops across the Alps in the third movement.

It’s incredibly refreshing to find a contemporary piece of music that’s genuinely pictorial. The vivid storm of the second movement, for example, carries hints of Mendelssohn before moving into the icy chill of the morning after, and the flames that light up the sky from the burning Houses of Parliament are unmistakably vivid. It’s as though Musgrave has drawn on the heritage of the past to create a cycle of tone poems for our times, using a musical landscape that is predominantly tonal with dissonances used discretely for dramatic effect. I loved it, and can’t wait to hear it again, which isn’t something you can always say of a contemporary piece.

I also loved the sound of both the orchestra and chorus in Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. Unusually, the Festival Chorus have waited until now to make their first festival appearance, National Youth Choir of Scotland having sung the opening concert, but they fitted beautifully into the sound of the orchestra to create a really memorable seascape. The rush of the opening was exhilarating, but this gave way to plenty of light and shade in, say, the sea shanty of the second section or the declamation of “Flaunt out, o sea”. They leapt upwards convincingly at “A pennant universal” and dazzled in the quicksilver of the Scherzo, before producing a last movement with a real sense of purpose and moment, the ladies sounding beautifully mysterious at “Wherefore unsatisfied soul” and the full chorus suitably climactic at “O thou transcendent.”

Martyn Brabbins’ control of the orchestra was superb, too, moulding a tone picture that ranged from the atmospheric mystery of the second movement to the perpetual sparkle of the brass climaxes that recur to illustrate Whitman’s message of universalism. Christopher Maltman sounded a little off colour at the beginning of the piece but was on his usual good form by the finale, as was Elizabeth Watts who was pearly of voice and noble of tone. This was an evening of differing seascapes, but it produced two highly satisfying journeys.

*****