Maxwell Davies’s Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine

0 of 5 stars

Maxwell Davies
Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Recorded on 10 & 11 March 1998 in SWF Studios, Freiburg

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: October 2006
[Custom-built CD]
Duration: 45 minutes

The treasure-trove that is “MaxOpus” houses such an embarrassment of riches that it seems singularly unfair that on-line distribution of recordings tends to bypass the traditional record review process. Any number of the recordings currently available on “MaxOpus” for purchase by custom compilation on CD or digital download would surely receive critical acclaim if they had been released in conventional fashion.

Classical Source will continue to post periodic overviews of the MaxOpus catalogue as it continues to expand but from time to time a recording appears which positively cries out to be considered individually.

This electrifying account of Maxwell Davies’s seminal Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine, from 1964, in a studio recording made in Freiburg in 1998, is one such.

The work articulates a defining moment in Maxwell Davies’s vast and still-evolving output. A quasi-symphonic expansion of material from the opera “Taverner”, which occupied Maxwell Davies throughout much of the 1960s (Henze had then recently done something similar with his Fourth Symphony and the opera ‘King Stag’), and it represents a culmination of his early work in which the composer was assiduously building up and refining his technical skills. At the same time it looks forward to the disruptive and parodistic elements which were about to invade and burst apart the austere and strictly ordered musical language Maxwell Davies had been painstakingly assembling and of which the Fantasia itself is a paradigm.

The Second Fantasia is cast in 13 sections which play continuously and whose precise beginnings and endings are not always readily detectable (separate track numbers on the CD would have been useful in this regard). In the background, characteristically, is the ghost of a symphonic form, a three-movement slow-fast-slow structure that foreshadows, for example, Maxwell Davies’s Sixth Symphony. In the foreground is a veritable hall of mirrors in which the form and content of individual sections are variously glimpsed, previewed, recalled, echoed and parodied (in the ‘old’ meaning of the word).

The musical material, built upon Taverner’s ‘In Nomine’ cantus, which is heard at the outset played by string quartet, is worked through in what is one of the earliest and most systematic examples in Maxwell Davies’s concept of ‘continuous development’. In this the contours of musical shapes are gradually but relentlessly manipulated until entirely new shapes are formed, rather in the manner of the word-game where a word is changed one letter at a time until a new word is formed containing none of the original letters. This is filtered through functional, organ-like orchestration, which is at the disposal of the musical discourse by supplying separate coloration of discreet strands of argument.

The epicentre of the Second Fantasia is the highly extended 12th section, which is almost entirely for strings alone, a sustained adagio which is quite hypnotic in its slow but inexorable build-up to an apparently final crystallisation of the harmonic essence of the work (in fact the whole-tone ‘death’ chord from the opera). But this would-be catharsis is denied the listener, as the carpet is pulled by the unanticipated appearance of the final, and shortest, section – a few desultory bars of indifferent mutterings from the woodwinds.

This quietly shocking gesture was to be the precursor of any number of these quizzical endings in Maxwell Davies’s scores, where we seem to have reached the clinching moment only for it to peter out with an off-hand gesture, negating the implied finality of what has just gone before (try, for example all ten Strathclyde Concertos, not least the 10th!). If the Second Fantasia thus turns out to be a question rather than the answer we thought we were getting, it is nevertheless a question that yielded what from a 2006 perspective seems like one of the essential musical utterances of the 1960s.

This is the second recording that the Second Fantasia has received (the much shorter First Fantasia is also available on MaxOpus and would make the ideal compilation pairing). Decca’s pioneering first recording from 1972 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves, having long ago been deleted on vinyl, has now resurfaced on CD in a splendid 2-CD ‘Max Portrait’ release.

Whilst in no way wishing to deprecate that valiant reading, the new version is to be preferred in every respect. Indeed a comparison of the two is an object lesson in the historical assimilation of challenging new music. There is a well-worn theory that at least part of the resistance of earlier audiences to what used to be referred to as ‘avant-garde’ music (and how quaint that term now appears) was due to uncommitted and/or inexpert performances. There is something to be said for this – compare for example the wobbly and barely accurate CBS recordings of Stravinsky’s late serial works, under the composer’s direction, with Oliver Knussen’s readings of the same works for DG. (I also recall my first live encounter with Max’s “Revelation and Fall” in the late 1980s, the performance by the London Sinfonietta revealing a glinting, crystalline soundworld that seemed light years away from the scratchy EMI LP I grew up with, even allowing for the composer’s revision of the score.)

There is an audible sense in the ‘new’ recording of a work with several decades of performance tradition behind it. The New Philharmonia Orchestra sounds as if it is focusing so much on getting the difficult, unfamiliar rhythms more or less in place that the bigger picture goes largely missing. In Max’s own version – with an orchestra that is very versatile with ‘difficult’ music, thanks to Michael Gielen’s training – the rhythmic scansion of the music is crystal-clear, thereby illuminating the work’s overall trajectory without localised impediment.

This is a blistering performance, which grips from beginning to end. There are passages of sustained rage and volcanic power that are quite staggering – the climax of the third section and much of the fifth and sixth for example. The culminating adagio is superbly controlled, seeming to consist of a single exhalation, so that the sudden loss of tension at the very end is all the more unsettling. The strings of South German Radio’s Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg bestows on this adagio the kind of expressive intensity normally reserved for the slow movements of Mahler symphonies.

The recorded sound is warm and clear. Even by its own standards, MaxOpus has delivered a truly outstanding release. And now we must hope that it will be able to source a recording of the Seventh Symphony, so that we can hear for ourselves where the long symphonic journey adumbrated by the Second Taverner Fantasia finally came to rest.

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