The Voices of Our Ancestors; Missa Brevis; Rorate coeli
The New York Virtuoso Singers/Harold Rosenbaum
Lyrita SRCD387 63:44 mins
The cover image from the British Museum’s famous Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs may suggest Thea Musgrave’s vocal ancestors can be traced back to the seventh century BC. Obviously that’s not the case, though her lifeline and musical heritage, if shorter, are still interesting: a Scottish childhood; four Paris years studying with Nadia Boulanger; 20 years composing in Britain; 45 years, so far, composing in America. Whatever the genre tackled, or country or decade, her music has often carried a theatrical streak, most noticeable here in The Voices of Our Ancestors itself, a 35-minute work from 2014 scored for perambulating choir, a brass quartet and a church organ. The ancient texts it sets pose existential questions, but the answers rarely cohere in a satisfying way in this live recording from the resonant spaces of a New York church.
With the 2017 Missa Brevis, written for Wells Cathedral, the composer’s imagination appears boxed in by the liturgical format, the expectations of the British choral tradition and a fairly redundant organ part. Luckily, we have as counterweight the exultant, dramatic Rorate Coeli from 1973, packed with illustrative details and layered textures sparked into life by the vigorous words of the 14th/15th century Scottish poet William Dunbar. This is by far the best showcase for Harold Rosenbaum’s bold and fearless New York Virtuoso Singers, singing lustily and unaccompanied, but elsewhere too often locked in a cage.