Maggots and Mad Kings

0 of 5 stars

Maxwell Davies
Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot
Eight Songs for a Mad King

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in conversation with Paul Driver

Jane Manning (soprano)

Kelvin Thomas (baritone)

[Conrad Marshall (flute), Dov Goldberg (clarinet), Richard Casey (piano), Tim Williams (percussion), David Routledge (violin) & Jennifer Langridge (cello)]

Recorded on 7 & 8 February 2004 in the Great Hall at Lancaster University; Conversation recorded in London on 22 May 2004

Reviewed by: Robert Hugill

Reviewed: October 2004
Duration: 75 minutes

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 Davies’s genius that he circumscribes his protagonist’s 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 singer’s 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 composer’s 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 Davies’s 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 Hart’s multiphonics. Kelvin Thomas’s 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 Thomas’s is more theatrical and Eastman’s is more singer-like.

Miss Donnithorne’s 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 Dickens’s 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 Davies’s models is the operatic scena, the Mad Scene. In the passages requiring singing, Manning’s 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 composer’s recordings are beginning to show their age, though Unicorn-Kanchana’s transfers are exemplary. Psappha’s 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 Psappha’s own label and is available from its website for just £7.99. Even if you possess the original Fires recordings, Psappha’s version is equally indispensable.

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