Antarctic Symphony Symphony No.8
Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Recorded live in Konserthaus Die Glocke, Bremen on 25 September 2003
Piano Trio A Voyage to Fair Isle
[Vebjørn Anvik (piano), Sølve Sigerland (violin) & Ellen Flesjø (cello)]
Recorded in Wigmore Hall, London on 8 February 2003
Crossing Kings Reach
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Recorded live in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 6 March 2002
The Jacobite Rising
Lisa Tyrrell (soprano)
Margaret MacDonald (mezzo-soprano)
Neil Mackie (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Choir
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Recorded in City Hall, Glasgow on 5 and 6 December 1998
Recordings available from the MaxOpus website as custom-made CDs or downloads
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: November 2004
CD No: N/A
Duration: See above
Like London buses (on which we have already journeyed with Max), you wait a long time for a Maxwell Davies recording and then several arrive together, or rather many. No sooner have Decca and then EMI dusted down their vaults and released invaluable first-time CDs of long-lost vinyl back-catalogue, than we have the news that all devotees of Maxwell Davies’s music have long been waiting for – “MaxOpus Music” is finally in business! This commercial venture has been mooted for several years following the demise of the Collins Classics record label, which until then had been doing for Davies what Decca did for Britten and DG used to do for Henze. At a stroke, much of Davies’s recorded output was consigned to the remainder bin and new works became increasingly unfamiliar without recordings to document them.
Initially there was talk of Naxos picking up the Collins recordings but this was overtaken by an altogether grander scheme, namely that the composer’s official website, MaxOpus, would release these together with new recordings from a variety of sources. The intention is that “MaxOpus Music” will become nothing less than the primary source for obtaining recordings of the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, via direct download or custom-made CD.
The ambition behind this project is extraordinary and quite possibly unparalleled. Although MP3 downloading is by now commonplace in the world of pop music and is making some inroads into the classical field, there seems no precedent for a composer making his work available in this way.
Without in any way down-playing the composer’s undoubted boldness in pursuing this uncharted path (Max has not hitherto being renowned for his interest in new media), the credit for seeing the project through from inception to launch and beyond must surely go to Max’s manager of nearly 30 years’ standing, the indefatigable Judy Arnold, together with the site’s presiding technical mastermind Keith Marlow.
Although frustrating at the time to the many people waiting to get their hands on the recordings, the long delay between announcement and launch was evidently the result of a necessarily painstaking process to make sure that ambition would be matched by reality. That seems to have paid off in spectacular fashion. Orders have poured in (the first received within one minute of going live), no technical glitches have surfaced and the site has really hit the ground running with several batches of both new and old recordings having already been added to the roster since the site opened. The Collins recordings are being phased in over time, presumably to give the new recordings a higher profile – and what riches there are here.
The four recordings reviewed here have already been supplemented by works as diverse as the tour de force for solo mezzo-soprano from 1981, The Medium, and the very recent cycle for chorus and piano, Step by Circle. Impending releases include such tantalising items as the Brass Quintet, the orchestral High on the Slopes of Terror (surely Max’s best-ever title!) and the recent Nash Ensemble commission, Seven Skies of Winter. The Classical Source hopes to review the new releases in batches.
One huge advantage MaxOpus has over mainstream commercial recordings is that works for specific performing forces can be recorded – often with their original interpreters – without the need to find matching material to fill a disc (which often means no recording is made). The works for children are a conspicuous example of this, which is wonderful news because Max’s children’s music is in the same league as Britten’s (I am particularly looking forward to Songs of Hoy, due out in December). A recording of the Second Taverner Fantasia is in the can but is being held back for a while on account of the original Groves recording having been recently released by Decca.
I elected to receive my recordings in the shape of CDs, the audiophile in me being unable to accept compression by telephone wire. What first strikes you about the discs is the quality of the packaging. I was not expecting this to be especially shoddy but had thought beforehand that there would be a degree of cutting and pasting about it. In fact there is nothing of the sort – whatever combination of works you order, the labelling and the annotations flow seamlessly as if the couplings had been conceived from the outset. This is only the beginning. On the evidence of these first two discs, the quality of the recordings is well up to professional standards (in the case of The Jacobite Rising, quite exceptionally so) and all four performances are scorching in their commitment.
The recording of the Antarctic Symphony is licensed from Radio Bremen. This is an altogether gripping reading of one of Maxwell Davies’s most towering achievements of recent years. As with the Proms 2004 performance, the composer favours a less texturally supple approach to the work than other conductors might realise in it, but what weight of authority it has. The onomatopoeic gesture that opens the work, the sound of a breaking ice field, leaps out at you and doesn’t let go. The whole work has a kind of rolling grandeur that does indeed place you on the “RRS James Clark Ross” ploughing through that extraordinary sea and landscape.
Unusually for Davies, he allows himself an overtly colouristic approach to orchestration, with glinting percussion and swirling harps readily evoking the endless frozen daylight. The most characteristic musical image is of an underlying slow glacial movement flecked with sudden bursts of surface incident, sometimes no more than a scotch snap, like a vast horizontal surface with just a single vertical feature. This and many other parameters of the work (the changed recollections of what has already been heard, the brief glimpses of what is yet to come) speak of Maxwell Davies’s profound concern with musical time and with time itself and are the source of the work’s numinous intensity. By the end, the reflective glance back at the opening has acquired a charge and a meaning that the individual notes could not have if played in isolation – the very definition of a symphony.
It says a lot about Davies’s music that to listen to the Piano Trio of 2002 after the symphony entails no loss of specific gravity. From a formal perspective, the work might be said to collapse a four-movement sonata structure into a single-movement sonata allegro, with the slow movement and scherzo comprising a two-stage development section. Before and after the ‘slow movement’, Davies inserts two passages of solo folk-fiddling, for violin and cello respectively, which attests to the work’s inspiration of a visit to Fair Isle and which are in the composer’s best homespun Scottish style, which to my mind has a flavour of Scandinavian folk-music. The Grieg Trio gives a blistering rendition in a recording that is beautifully clear albeit slightly brittle in loud passages.
To one who is partial to Max in ‘wild and woolly’ mode, the 2002 Arup commission Crossing Kings Reach is a particular treat. The work takes the plainsong “Nudus egressus sum di utero” (and the composer’s own setting of the same words in English in his oratorio Job) on a journey – not so much a walk on the wild side as a walk to the wild side, namely across the Millennium Bridge from close-by St Paul’s Cathedral to Tate Modern. Thus the work begins with a distorted chorale recalling Maxwell Davies’s parodistic style of the late-1960s and ends with a rambunctious jumble of skewed tonal elements as if a bunch of circus artistes had suddenly invaded the piece. In between, the bridge’s celebrated ‘wobble’ is invoked in terms of form rather than what would have been the more obvious pitch terms – appropriately enough, since the wobble was in the structure, not the materials. Davies was not slow to see in the bridge a metaphor for his characteristic transformation processes, which operate here as rigorously as in any of his abstract pieces. This recording captures the first public performance and is a stirring example of the collective virtuosity of the London Sinfonietta for which the work is a vehicle.
The Jacobite Rising of 1997 (the work, that is – the rising took place in 1745) forms part of the extraordinary blossoming of choral music which overtook Maxwell Davies’s music in the mid-90s. It was commissioned by Scottish businessman Alistair Grant who also selected the texts which comprise verses by Edwin Muir and Wilfred Owen (with no specific connection to the rising), three bardic texts from the time of the events and a closing rumination by the contemporary Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (whose work was a revelation to me).
The opening Muir-setting immediately establishes the style of the choral writing – note-for-word settings in rhythmic unison (suitable for professional and amateur choirs alike) largely between adjacent notes with the interval of the augmented fourth a defining harmonic presence. As with the other movements, an orchestral paragraph at the end functions as both postlude and prelude. The second movement, an encomium to Bonnie Prince Charlie, introduces the soloists one by one and is capped by the completion of the Muir setting.
The third movement ‘Johnnie Cope’ is a vivid and exciting set-piece conjuring up the Battle of Prestonpans. It has the verse and refrain structure and flattened-seventh modality of traditional Highland song, which Maxwell Davies overlays with a wealth of orchestral material, both parodistic and ‘real’, through which the vocal lines can be heard as if glimpsed through the fog of the battlefield. The elements of traditional song spill over into the vocal lines of the fourth setting ‘A Song of the Battle of Falkirk’ which is followed by Owen’s ‘Spring Offensive’. The bridge to the last movement is a desolate clarinet solo like a lone piper at the end of a battle – an effect similar to the solo clarinet passage in the first movement of Nielsen’s Symphony No.5. This final setting, of MacLean is a beautifully shaped threnody on the subject of depopulation and exile, which recalls the corresponding section of Max’s Black Pentecost. The work turns full-circle with a poignant recollection of the Muir.
The Jacobite Rising is a real winner which fairly cries out for a Proms performance and will also I suspect prove highly exportable. Indeed, it is surely only the relentless outpouring of new work from Maxwell Davies that temporarily delays the slightly earlier works from establishing themselves in the repertory. Posterity will have a lot of catching up to do with Max! The recording is an edit (audibly so in places) of two performances in Glasgow in 1998, incandescent from beginning to end. The chorus is marvellously drilled and the soloists are perfectly chosen. The recording has a wonderful bloom and excellent balance.
As for the future repertoire, the Seventh Symphony is an obvious candidate for early inclusion. And the last I heard, Oliver Knussen’s recording of the opera “Taverner” was languishing in the vaults of NMC awaiting a philanthropic ‘angel’ to stump up £100,000 – is there anyone out there?