The Shard [world premiere]
Peter Maxwell Davies
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 17 October, 2011
Venue: St John’s, Smith Square, London
The Kensington Symphony Orchestra got its 56th Season off to a great start with a programme that looked good on paper and was even better in the flesh. Skilfully blurring the line between amateur and professional, the KSO nearly always suggested itself as the latter.
With typical enterprise, Russell Keable had planned us something new, a complex revival, and a now-popular symphony that shouldn’t be – and wasn’t – taken for granted. The Shard (London Bridge way) is set to be the tallest building in the EU (and London-dominant). Stephen Goss’s response to its tapered sky-reaching is a five-minute showpiece, lively and fantastical, ceremonial, and with a sense of endeavour (upwards of course) that has a newsreel feel to it, and maybe reveals nostalgia for a previous-era capital. Musically Malcolm Arnold was recalled, fleetingly, and, more substantially, William Alwyn in light-music mode (Derby Day, Elizabethan Dances, and the like). Whatever the references or the reaction, The Shard is a thoroughly likeable and well-imagined piece. The composer can only have been delighted by the brio of this first performance.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s Fifth Symphony was first heard in August 1994, the composer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at a BBC Prom. A few years later it was played again courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins; quite possible, then, that this KSO account was only the third in London. At 25 minutes it is the shortest of Maxwell Davies’s eight symphonies (to date, numbers 9 – finished – and 10 are waiting in the wings). Not because of its length, but its contents, Max 5 might be thought the most accessible of the composer’s expansive symphonic utterances (which also include the uncompromising Worldes Blis and Second Fantasia on an In Nomine by John Taverner).
The Fifth, for all the recognisable Maxian characteristics – whooping horns, splenetic trumpets, ghoulish flexatone, percussion mantras, plainsong –, also contains some of the most-tender music that he had composed up until that time (the symphony’s halfway point is a still-centre of exquisite reflection), sometimes lamenting (the opening trio for flute, clarinet and alto flute), sometimes deeply personal and touching, creating a seclusion that conflicts and alternates with the natural world – the howl of something wild, the barrier of a craggy monolith – yet all integrated with a rigour worthy of Sibelius, one of Max’s heroes. This is a score that embraces the soft spots and then swoops like a bird of prey, talons unflinching in their grip, music rich in expression and suggestion, with remembrances personal to the composer.
At the close, the double basses appear to be stalking to another climax of brass roulades, but quiet timpani taps stop – rather than end – the work … to be continued … and we now know, as revealed by the composer, that his first seven symphonies are chapters of a big symphonic book, the end of the Seventh having the potential to cue, again, the turbulence of the opening movement of the Symphony that was later appended No.1. Russell Keable offered a helpful spoken introduction to No.5 before he took his orchestra on an impressive and involving musical journey, hard-worked at rehearsal, committed and fearless in performance, and shedding new light on an economic yet far-reaching musical statement.
Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony was made fresh and compelling. Keable’s success was not to sentimentalise or signpost the music. The slow introduction was brooding, dark and sinewy – but not navel-gazing – with a powerful surge into the exposition that was all the stronger for the absence of rits and sectionalising, ensuring a momentum that made the dropping of the repeat totally convincing, the development section vibrant and tempestuous. Well done to the conductor for not being tempted to add a timpani stroke to the movement’s final gesture, trusting to Rachmaninov’s ‘solo’ double basses, and the scherzo benefited from the avoidance of rampage and swoon. The slow movement blossomed from a sec and shapely clarinet solo from Chris Horril to find ecstatic heights and nocturnal solace. The finale, firm of tempo and exuberant of mood, set the seal on a notable execution, restoring faith in a piece that can be heard too often and sometimes indifferently. Not here though, for this ripe performance – without pith and pips – was an hour well spent and completed an outstanding concert by Russell Keable and his Kensingtonians.