Eight Songs for a Mad King is an astonishing work and it is difficult to believe that it is 35 years old. It was written for a very specific circumstance and, as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies informs us in an illuminating talk at the end of this disc, there was no thought beyond the initial performances. It was written for a South African actor call Roy Hart who specialised in advanced vocal techniques. The result is a tour de force
, requiring the performer to sing in both bass and alto registers as well as produce a vast range of other sounds; it would have been understandable if the work had gone on to receive few subsequent performances. That it did not is due to the remarkable nature of the work: a music-theatre piece that gives a visceral thrill in performance with a score to a text by Randolph Stow that offers a searing examination of madness.
The inspiration behind the piece was a musical box, once owned by Sir Stephen Runciman, with which George III had reputedly tried to teach his birds to sing. In Eight Songs the musicians are the birds enclosed in cages; the percussionist is the gaoler and the singer is George III, or perhaps simply an actor who thinks he is the king.
It is part of Maxwell Daviess genius that he circumscribes his protagonists madness with a careful formal construction; each of the songs is based on one of the tunes from the musical box and Maxwell Davies underpins the singers flights with a carefully constructed sub-structure including not a little parody, throwing in a number of other quotations plus more than a nod in the direction of Monteverdi and 18th-century recitative.
The composer himself recorded the work in 1970 with his own group, The Fires of London, and baritone Julius Eastman (the original performer, Roy Hart, unfortunately died in a car accident shortly after the first performance).
The composers recording remains available and now we have a modern studio recording by the Manchester-based new-music group Psappha with Kelvin Thomas as the protagonist. Unusually Psappha works here without a conductor, a remarkable feat in such a taxing work and this does, perhaps, throw the singer into higher relief. Eastman, on Maxwell Daviess recording, is intense and concentrated, rather more focussed than Thomas is. Eastman also seems to have the better voice and better vocal control in the purely musical passages, but each singer has to find his own way and bring to it different virtues. According to Maxwell Davies, no one has yet reproduced Roy Harts multiphonics. Kelvin Thomass virtues lie in the strong dramatic breadth that he brings to the work. If forced to characterise the two performances I would reluctantly say that Thomass is more theatrical and Eastmans is more singer-like.
Miss Donnithornes Maggot was the follow-up to Eight Songs, with a five-year gap between the pieces. Miss Donnithorne is based on an Australian woman who was the model for Dickenss Miss Havisham. Maxwell Davies and Stow intended the piece to be lighter, but it is again an examination of madness. For his recording, the composer had the advantage of using Mary Thomas, the singer for whom the role was written. For its recording, Psappha have Jane Manning who, for over 35 years, has astonished us with her versatility in the field of new music. Her performance is touching and gripping; in the theatre it must make a powerful effect. Always ladylike, she nevertheless manages to convey the wildness underpinning the role. One of Maxwell Daviess models is the operatic scena
, the Mad Scene. In the passages requiring singing, Mannings control is not quite ideal, making me regret that she did not record the role earlier; Mary Thomas has the advantage and displays more vocal control.
However, the occasional stricture aside, this is a brilliant new recording. The composers recordings are beginning to show their age, though Unicorn-Kanchanas transfers are exemplary. Psapphas release has separate tracks for each section (the older disc has only two), and Psappha is recorded with brilliance and clarity and have two fine dramatic performers as the soloists.
The CD, which concludes with a 13-minute interview between Paul Driver and Maxwell Davies, is issued on Psapphas own label and is available from its website for just £7.99. Even if you possess the original Fires recordings, Psapphas version is equally indispensable.