Max – Antarctic Symphony

Maxwell Davies
Mavis in Las Vegas
Trumpet Concerto
Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No.8)

Håkan Hardenberger ((trumpet)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Antarctic Film by Mike Newman

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 30 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The South Bank Centre’s celebration of “Peter Maxwell Davies, a Musician of Our Time” came to an end with the two-week festival’s only Royal Festival Hall concert, and with it the only representation of his concerto (the tenth Strathclyde Concerto heard earlier in the festival is a concerto for orchestra) and symphony repertoire.

The two main works were also commissioned (or co-commissioned) by the Philharmonia Orchestra, although bizarrely the programme stated it was the Philharmonic Orchestra (computer spell-checkers have never recognised the word ‘Philharmonia’).

But first we had the effervescence that is Mavis in Las Vegas, borne out of an American hotel registration mistake that meant that Max couldn’t be found in Las Vegas as he was registered not as Maxwell Davis, but Mavis. A flight of musical fancy later and hey presto, Mavis in Las Vegas hit the BBC Philharmonic in 1996 in Max’s most populist mode. Almost akin to Malcolm Arnold, this is as much fun for the orchestra as for the audience and with the sprightly composer at the helm it made for a perfect opener.

The Trumpet Concerto – dating from 1988 – is a much grittier affair, but with the trumpeter who first recorded it, Håkan Hardenberger and the orchestra who commissioned it, let alone the composer conducting, it was good to hear how well this work has lasted. Originally written for the Philharmonia’s then principal trumpeter, John Wallace, Hardenberger pipped Wallace to the post by just three months in laying down the recording (Hardenberger with the BBC Philharmonic and Elgar Howarth in January 1990; Wallace with the Scottish National and the composer in April 1990), and he remains fully in command of this unusual work, more MacMillan in its avowed religious inspiration (the story of St Francis of Assisi, with the sermon the slow middle section) and use of the plainsong “Franciscus pauper et humilis”.

After the interval those in the balcony of the Royal Festival hall were ushered downstairs as the projector being used for Mike Newman’s film from Maxwell Davies’s trip to the Antarctic (courtesy of co-commissioners the British Antarctic Survey) was far too loud. The film – for the first time in the UK – was being shown alongside Max’s Eighth Symphony, simply called Antarctic Symphony. Premiered as part of the Royal Festival Hall’s 50th-anniversary celebrations four years ago, then heard subsequently at the Proms in 2004, it is now available on demand (either as a download or on a custom-made CD) from Maxwell Davies’s website “Max Opus”, in a performance by the Bremen Philharmonic.

Curiously, although both the vistas of endless ice or the RRS James Clark Ross negotiating its way through icebergs and the ice floe were impressive, some of the film seriously detracted from Max’s music; especially the merging of swarming humanity seen through an icy film at times when, reading between the notes, Max was illustrating the human detritus left by previous expeditions (explorers as litter louts) and therefore, by extension, the damage we are doing to the planet. But such simplistic messages derailed one’s listening to the music, which, to me, made much more impact at the Royal Albert Hall than here.

That it was well played there is no doubt. The Philharmonia was on cracking form, and able to revel either in Mavis’s cheeky musical melange or the sonorous evocation of the world’s single biggest area of inhospitable ice, but the film was an unfortunately intrusive distraction. That Max continues to dazzle with a confident musical palate is also without doubt, but it would have been nicer to be able to concentrate on his Strauss-like off-cuts from recent works that he quotes in the passage illustrating the detritus left on Antarctica’s once-virgin snow than see him ponder yet another glacier on the film.

Intriguingly, given Max’s recent Royal Philharmonic Society Annual Lecture on “Will serious music become extinct?” and his idea that contemporary music audiences are growing far too old, the audience was certainly full of elderly, very enthusiastic audience members; but it was also heartening to see many young, student-age members listening intently and, indeed, enjoying his music.

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