The third Proms Saturday Matinee of the 2014 Season focussed on the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – who, having completed his decade-long tenure of Master of the Queen’s Music and with such major works as his Tenth Symphony successfully launched, is currently enjoying a renewed high profile in his 80th-birthday year. The present programme ranged widely over his vast output – taking in significant pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, along with a more recent item that looks back to the preoccupations of his earliest years as a composer.
This latter work is Linguae ignis (Tongues of Fire, 2002), written for the cellist Vittorio Ceccanti and unfolding as a motet for the soloist and a typically diverse ensemble in which elements from two Pentecostal plainchants combine in the steady accumulation of intensity towards a suddenly raucous central climax; fragments from which continue to disrupt the latterly subdued discourse until its resigned final bars. A fine showing from Tim Gill, in a piece that brings aspects across five decades of Maxwell Davies’s output into powerful new accord.
The centrepiece was provided by Revelation and Fall (1966), harbinger of the expressionist idiom that dominated Maxwell Davies’s thinking in the second half of the 1960s – rarely as potently as here. The poetry of the short-lived Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was highly prized by Webern, but Maxwell Davies’s approach is worlds away from the crystalline beauty of the Viennese master – its alternately anguished and aggressive imagery inspiring music of suitably heightened intensity (and parallel virtuosity) which culminates in the soloist’s spine-chilling declamation through a megaphone. Rebecca Bottone was a little too reticent here, though elsewhere she brought real poise and subtlety to vocal writing whose visceral manner is rarely without finesse. The result was to probe beyond the outward desperation to the calm fatalism at the work’s core.
The London Sinfonietta then came into its own with A Mirror of Whitening Light (1977) – Maxwell Davies’s first (and for many years only) collaboration with this ensemble, and also one of the most enduring of all his larger instrumental works. The play of light where the Atlantic and North Seas meet off the coast of Hoy (the Orkney island where the composer made his home for many years) inspired this succinctly cumulative 'tone poem', passages of greater or lesser rhythmic velocity and textural density generating a momentum this composer has seldom rendered so graphically or evocatively. Such at least was the impression conveyed by this reading, the Sinfonietta responding with alacrity to the precision of Sian Edwards’s direction. With ‘Max’ on hand to introduce the latter pieces, an absorbing 75 minutes’ music-making was assured.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms