Feature Review: Max – A Mirror of Whitening Light / To the Max!

Written by: John Fallas

Monday 18 April 2005, Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

Maxwell Davies

Shakespeare Music

Military March [World premiere]


Five Pieces for orchestra, Op.16 [chamber orchestra version arranged by F. Greissle]


Piccola Musica Notturna


Detours [World premiere]

Maxwell Davies

A Mirror of Whitening Light

Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble

Diego Masson

Tuesday 19 April 2005, Purcell Room, London

“To the Max!”

Maxwell Davies

Songs of Hoy

Original Songs by Young People

Songs of Peckham [World premiere]

Children from Michael Faraday Primary School (Songs of Hoy) / Children from Class 5G, Gloucester Primary School (Songs of Peckham)

Musicians from the London Sinfonietta

Ian McQueen

Maxwell Davies

Strathclyde Concerto No.10

Purcell Contemporary Ensemble
Edward Longstaff

Against expectation, “Max: Peter Maxwell Davies, a Musician of Our Time” is beginning to look as interesting as any recent South Bank composer focus. An oeuvre perhaps not best represented by Collins Classics’ endless stream of symphony and concerto releases (matters have been much improved by some judicious recent re-releases on EMI and Decca) turns out to contain no small quantity of outstanding works sui generis.

As with April 2004’s celebration of Berio, the SBC is collaborating with the Royal Academy of Music, and after Sunday’s opening concert of music-theatre works in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, it was off to the Academy on Monday to hear its excellent contemporary ensemble in works by Maxwell Davies, his forebears, and a current RAM postgraduate. Whether, as the composer suggested in a programme note, the first piece on the programme was “something Shakespeare would have enjoyed” must remain a moot point, particularly after this somewhat under-powered reading, but from there on it was all up.

Moot also was whether the Manson Ensemble’s astonishing performance of Schoenberg’s Op.16 authentically communicated the fevered expressive substance of these pieces. But it was the first revelation of an evening not short on musical epiphanies. Like an analysis lesson in real time, it illuminated and made pristine the first piece’s counterpoint of lines and shifting layers, and shed light on the entire score such as is usually achieved only by period performance (now there’s a thought!). Schoenberg’s own “Society for Private Performance” used to give new and recent music in ‘study’ versions for chamber forces – I don’t know whether this transcription was made for such an occasion, but certainly it seemed to recast the white heat of Schoenbergian emotional expressionism (circa 1909) in the soberer structural light of the early 1920s.

A sensitive rendering of Dallapiccola’s most characteristic ensemble work – gentle serial manipulations in a musical world of Italianate lyricism – preceded a confident, emotionally open debut from Academy composition student Joseph Finlay. Topping all of this, the evening’s absolute high point came in a thrilling performance of Maxwell Davies’s 1978 London Sinfonietta commission, A Mirror of Whitening Light.

This 20-minute crucible of thematic and harmonic transformation is one of the most striking and successful of Maxwell Davies’s many pieces – from the 1970s to the present – inspired by natural phenomena of sea and light around his Orkney home. Its musical processes, typical of this ‘Orkney period’, provide an identifiable link with the composer’s earlier preoccupations: varieties of musical transformation familiar from works of the 1960s, in which deep explorations of moral/religious truth and falsity found parallels in the inversions, distortions and structural ambiguities of the notes themselves. In the Orkney works, the elaborate symbolic networks are more submerged, and on the surface it’s a more purely musical alchemy that is worked on the plainchant-derived source materials.

As in the First Symphony (1974-6), the orchestration of ‘Mirror’ makes much of glistening tuned percussion to represent the brilliant light and restless wave-motion of the Pentland Firth, but there is more slow music than one tends to remember in these pieces, whether it is measured melody evoking the Orcadian landscape or lyrical recitative – cellist Emily Cavey shone in her frequent obbligatos – and towards the end the horn rang out the notes of the foundational plainchant, “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, in a moment of much-needed syntactical clarification.

Such moments are few and far between, a fact that may help us diagnose a fault in Maxwell Davies’s style. It’s undeniable that his pre-eminence stands in more doubt today than any of the other leading British composers of his generation, and given the strength of individual works such as this one, one must wonder what the problem can be. I think it may be twofold (if we set aside the relatively banal complaint that he has been too prolific). First, the attitude to religion can be a matter of confusion: is it a subject of parody, as in many works of the 1960s, or an object of (or at least a medium for) veneration, as seems to be the case when Orcadian nature and history are interpreted in parallel with Christian chant and the associated textual symbolism? Below the abstract surface of the music, Davies continues to draw on the associated textual meanings of his chosen melodies. One suspects that an ambivalence of meaning may be intended even when, as in most of the Orkney works, the surface is less provocative than in the music-theatre works of ten years before.

And this is the second part of the problem. In A Mirror of Whitening Light and in many of the orchestral works which followed it, Davies’s concern for a continuous transformation of his basic material can lead to a restless non-differentiation of syntax, and what his much-vaunted ‘contemporary substitute for tonality’ seems to lack is moments of genuine harmonic and gestural transparency.

Doubt and questioning are equally impotent when they seem produced to order – as they did in the Military March (2003), premiered at this concert, a ‘response’ (surprise, surprise!) to the war in Iraq. But in the earlier work, Diego Masson’s utterly convinced and convincing direction of the outstanding Manson Ensemble made one believe that here is a composer who has written at least one masterpiece.

More youth talent on the following evening, with children from performing Songs of Hoy and then, under the direction of Ian McQueen, a new set, Songs of Peckham, composed by the schoolchildren themselves and inspired by Maxwell Davies’s songs, though their style drew more from contemporary pop music than Davies’s originals. These were followed, in the second half, by an absolute vindication of a piece I fully confess not having expected to enjoy, Strathclyde Concerto No.10.

The Purcell School’s super-talented youngsters found freshness and vigour in every corner of this work, with each individual soloist game for the challenge (everyone gets a moment in the spotlight). The slow central movement contained some passages of great beauty, and the exuberant finale romped home.

Or almost. Ambivalence again informs the ending, a typical Maxwell Davies gambit of a celebratory E major whose ‘true’ dominant, B natural, is contradicted by a false tritonal dominant of B flat (perhaps the abstract musical equivalents of the true and false religious figures in the works of the sixties). But what was less expected was the unforced joy with which these young musicians played, making this final movement seem quite without the longueurs that can frequently attend Davies’s assumption of folk-dance idioms. The accompanying power-point display was a bonus – analysis for the kids in the audience, which proved fun and absorbing for at least one adult, too. Terrific!

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