As his eightieth-birthday celebrations gather momentum, this was a good time for the Proms to gain Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s insight into his own music, ahead of two concerts devoted to his music. In an interview as part of the Composer Portrait, with Andrew McGregor of BBC Radio 3, Max (as he is known) revealed a similar discipline to that of Benjamin Britten, ensuring he is at his desk in Orkney by 9.30 each day. His office-bound work is supplemented with long walks along the beach, whatever the weather. Despite contracting leukaemia last year, during which the composer was told he had a month to live, Max now looks sprightly, his sharp eyes turning brighter still whenever Orkney is discussed. The island exerts an even greater stronghold on Maxwell Davies than Aldeburgh did on Britten, and this was made clear in a trio of chamber works that were excellently played by musicians from the London Sinfonietta Academy. Max, seated to the side, could not resist conducting to himself as he listened to the pieces, but the broad smile crossing his features at the end of each piece indicated his pleasure at hearing them once again.
Runes from a Holy Island was written in 1977 for The Fires of London, the group Maxwell Davies co-founded with Harrison Birtwistle (also 80 this year). This BBC Radio 4 (yes, 4) commission is in five sections and is richly colourful, in its composer’s words “a celebration of the rarefied atmosphere of Orkney.” It offered moments of contemplation in the beautifully scored central Andante, where the marimba came to the fore, but also a weird sense of bright light in the treble-rich first section. This contrasted with the fourth, which benefited from the expanse offered by the bass drum, while the skittish figures of the fifth piece featured impressive clarinet-playing from Benjamin Mellefont.
There followed a competition piece for solo viola, Six Sorano Variants written for the 2012 Lionel Tertis International Competition. In typical fashion Maxwell Davies’s writing combines academic attention to detail, challenging the performer’s faculties and the disciplines of viola-playing, with a sense of place and perspective – this time Italy, where the composer studied in his youth with Goffredo Petrassi. Zoe Matthews used her imagination and technical acumen in an ideal performance. Antechrist (1967), a brief piece for the Pierrot Players (which became) The Fires of London, ended the selection of music, an example of Maxwell Davies’s ability to write concise but meaningful work. The addition of Burmese percussion to the mix put an intriguing spin on the source material, an unidentified thirteenth-century motet, so that the ear took in an old dance form in striking new clothes. Once again the performance level – particularly from the three percussionists – was exemplary.
This all served as an effective appetiser for the second Proms performance of Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.5, now 20 years old. Written for the Philharmonia Orchestra, it is in a single movement acknowledging the workings of Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies, which Maxwell Davies was studying at the time, while taking melodic material from the youth-orchestra piece of 1993, Chat Moss. At 27 minutes the Fifth is one of his shortest symphonies, and it is rigorously structured, executing a ‘magic square’ principle with which its composer was preoccupied at the time. In summary this means the length of melodic phrases is pre-determined. Perhaps because of this microscopic attention to form the music felt constricted in its expression to begin with, despite some attractive orchestration. As the structure unfolded, however, so the musical material exerted a greater hold.
The BBC Philharmonic percussion was significant to the orchestral sound, adding a metallic glint to its top edge that suggested once again the unusual play of bright sunlight, especially so with the use of crotales (small cymbals) and a vibrato-rich flexatone. With the quieter music there was an enchanted calm, with a flute solo from Richard Davis that detached itself from the rest of the orchestra, his sighing refrain using quarter-tones in its evocation of a seabird. It was therefore possible to imagine a great skua or albatross borne on the wing for the rest of the Symphony’s duration, gliding effortlessly above the held bass strings, which were all the more dramatic for their stasis. Unfortunately a baby chose this moment to introduce its own music, which was very distracting for those seated nearby – perhaps this was not a concert to take an infant! Yet despite this disturbance, and protracted bouts of fidgeting and coughing elsewhere in the Hall (all too common, unfortunately), Max’s Fifth held on to make a positive impact.
To follow this challenging Symphony with Frank Bridge’s half-hour Oration was a risk, and not helped by a programme note promising a rival to Elgar’s Cello Concerto – the two works share emotional ground but are very different in musical language. This account worked because of its attention to detail, and also because Leonard Elschenbroich had clearly invested a lot of time and effort into his part. He gave a moving account, combining prayerful melodic phrases with deep-seated sorrow and anger. Oration (1930) expresses Bridge’s pacifism and horror at the First World War, a release of emotion he had held since the conflict ended in 1918 and a piece that anticipates his pupil Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony. Elschenbroich’s playing was consistently probing, his intonation flawless, with each phrase carefully considered in the context of the work’s full impact.
Bridge (1879-1941) very rarely uses the whole orchestra at once in the course of his piece, and John Storgårds was careful to limit the dynamics on interventions from ice-cold strings and woodwinds in particular, all the while building up to the march where the soldiers effectively go ‘over the top’ of the trenches, a passage of music realised in almost horrific detail. The single-movement arch never lost its focus or impact, and the epilogue found pure stillness in the Hall, as though realisation of the conflict had hit home.
As an unexpected encore Elschenbroich bravely chose to include Hindemith (very welcome), the second soloist this Proms season to do so, following violinist Julia Fischer. Elschenbroich offered the finale of the Sonata for Solo Cello (Opus 25/3), completed a year before Oration. It offered circumspect humour and was a nice touch.
Two works by Sibelius bookended the concert, placing Maxwell Davies’s Fifth in appropriate context and showcasing the BBC Philharmonic’s recent Sibelius cycle with Storgårds, released on Chandos. The concert began with an understated account of Finlandia, which may have lacked excitement in its faster sections but which was notable for the glassy clarity of the woodwind choir as it played the hymn tune. The Second Symphony continued Storgårds’s propensity to seek and reveal detail, which with Sibelius is always welcome – though this did come at the expense of deep-seated passion in the first movement. Therefore there was less of the romantic ardour of Tchaikovsky, and a more studied look at the formal building blocks. The slow movement took a necessarily darker edge, though, with considerable but well-chosen rubato, and the clarion calls from the brass rang out with pleasing conviction. The culmination of the work as the finale homed into view was affectionately wrought, the strings of the BBC Philharmonic playing as one, brass burnished.