Antarctic Symphony Premiere

Crown Imperial*
Violin Concerto in B minor*
Maxwell Davies
Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No.8) [British Antarctic Survey and Philharmonia Orchestra commission: World premiere]

Tasmin Little (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
David Atherton*
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 May, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

There was an element of symmetry to this premiere. Almost 25 years ago, Simon Rattle conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in the first performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’s (First) Symphony, a work – and, culturally-speaking, an occasion – which marked a watershed in contemporary British music, as the pioneer of expressionist music-theatre confronted the symphonic thinking of Beethoven and Sibelius, in a move which was to have profound consequences for his music over the next quarter-century. Now, Davies assures us, that involvement in the symphonic arena is over. Having concluded his ’abstract’ symphonic cycle with No.7 last year, Davies has allowed himself a final traversal through a medium he has sought to make almost too completely his own.

Davies’s 1997 journey to Antarctica, as a guest of the British Antarctic survey and integral to the commissioning of his Eighth Symphony, has been well documented, not least in the diary extracts printed in the concert’s programme. So, an ’Antarctic Symphony’ for our time? It is worth considering in what ways, were its genesis and designation unknown, one might consider the work as representative of its inspiration and, more saliently, how its formal and expressive processes constitute an intrinsically symphonic experience. The first point is quickly answered: leaving aside the “transmuted sound images” of which the composer writes in his programme note, the open textures and wide harmonic spacing of the piece evoke ’deserts’ – which, though they may be as much psychological as actual, are real nonetheless.

The second point is inevitably more complex. Certainly the overall follow-through is one familiar from earlier Davies symphonies, notably the Fifth (a Philharmonia Orchestra commission back in 1994). The precipitate opening, percussion absorbed into the musical fabric as before, is a striking sequence which, reprised and elaborated just before the close, sets out the temporal limits of the work in gripping fashion. The pervasive presence of the plainsong ’Dum complerentur dies pentecostes’ binds together the thematic processes to a degree immediately perceivable at an aural level; indeed, the astringent manner in which elements of it cut through on brass and tuned percussion links the work with Davies’s two major proto-symphonic pieces of the 1960s: the Second Taverner Fantasy and the orchestral motet Worldes Blis. Yet there is a strong feeling that, as in his numbered symphonies, Davies does not always harness the developmental potential in these works to an evolving and sustained momentum. Thus the designated ’allegro’ and ’scherzo’ sections have the impact in ’real time’ of superimposed textural patterns of greater or lesser stasis, rather than layers of varying but definable rhythmic activity. This gives the work an overall homogeneity which itself is in keeping with the source of inspiration, but it also limits the music’s dynamic metamorphosis over its 40-minute span.

This is, of course, an issue which Davies’s admirers and detractors alike have been arguing over during the quarter-century just gone, and will continue to do so. One feature unique to the present work is the ’junk-yard’ passage, beginning just before mid-point, in which several of Davies’s recent works are referred to as if in limbo. The subliminal nature of this process is far removed from the medley of quotation in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben; rather it recalls another Eighth Symphony – that by Karl Amadeus Hartmann from 1962, which fulfils a similarly retrospective function in its composer’s symphonic output. Both works are conscious summations of their composer’s contribution to the medium: like the Hartmann, the perceived shortcomings of Davies’s final such statement might come to be outweighed through the recognised fulfilment of its larger contribution to symphonic form.

It should be added that the response of the Philharmonia to this ostensible ’end of an era’ premiere was as responsive as it seemed wholehearted. Davies makes as few concessions to the stamina of players as he does that of listeners. The former responded with demonstrable commitment; the latter at least gave the music the silence it deserved while it was being heard.

In the first half, Tasmin Little gave a soulful account of Elgar’s Violin Concerto; exquisitely poised in the ’Andante’, under-projected in the outer movements – notably the Finale, where a seeming desire to play-down the bravura robbed the music of its dynamic and emotional contrast, making the inspired soliloquy of the accompanied cadenza little more than a parenthesis to the overall design. A pity, as Little is a potentially great interpreter of this concerto. To begin proceedings, Crown Imperial, played to brazen effect with little thought as to the underlying cross-rhythms that give the music its uniquely Waltonian lift. At least things could only get better from there.

  • BBC Radio 3 broadcasts this concert on 7 May, at 7.30pm
  • Further performances on 8 May at De Montford Hall, Leicester (0116 233 3111) and on 12 May at Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 709709)
  • Max’s website is

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