Revelation and Fall
Blind Man’s Buff
De Assumtione Beatae Maria Verginis [UK premiere]
Lucy Shelton (soprano)
Claire Booth (soprano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 22 April, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Unlike his contemporary and onetime colleague Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies has not had a sustained relationship with the London Sinfonietta – though their one major collaboration, 1977’s A Mirror of Whitening Light, is one of his most representative works from that decade. So it was good to find the ensemble putting on a concert of his music as part of the current “Max” retrospective.
The first half featured two works from the time when work on the opera “Tavener” (what a pity the resources needed to mount a semi-staging were presumably not available) was reaching culmination. Antechrist (1967) fashions its transformations of a Medieval motet into a ‘concert overture’ whose sonata outline offers numerous pointers to the formal processes Maxwell Davies was to pursue a decade hence. The result is a curtain-raiser as intricate as it is engaging, and well worth revival.
As was the very different Revelation and Fall (1966) – one of the composer’s most uncompromising and intense works of that period. The eponymous poem by Georg Trakl – with its images of corpses, nuns, blood and death – invites an expressive overkill that Maxwell Davies embraces but also tempers through subtle deployment of canonic techniques, as also the seamless emergence of instrumental interludes that reflect upon or anticipate the setting. It is this instilling of a compositional distance that makes the piece much more than a neo-Expressionist foray into darker emotions. Lucy Shelton encompassed its extremes of delicacy and abrasion with her customary flair, with the moment when the megaphone makes its climactic appearance being played for all its theatrical and histrionic worth.
If Blind Man’s Buff (1972) has worn less well, this is because its musical content is less focused in the presentation of an admittedly elusive complex of ideas and images. Even so, this masque (which memory recalls as the only Maxwell Davies work conducted by Pierre Boulez) treads an appropriately fine line between morality and farce (as does Georg Büchner’s play “Leonce und Lena”, from whose final scene the scenario derives). Its translucent textures are a persuasive medium, moreover, for the song-and-dance routines by which King and Jester discover their identities – however illusory – and to which roles the pure-toned Claire Booth and wittily sardonic Lucy Shelton were well matched.
A constant in Maxwell Davies’s music has been the use of plainchant as motivic basis for instrumental commentaries of often symphonic scope. Sometimes the result has been less impressive than the means through which it has taken shape, but De Assumtione Beatae Maria Verginis (2002) is one of the most engrossing of such recent large-scale works. The title comes from a 13th-century lives of the saints and the ‘theme’ itself relates to the Feast of the Assumption: Maxwell Davies builds a substantial structure on its rhythmic and harmonic premises – conflating, as he has done frequently in the past, the inherent dynamic of sonata- and symphonic-form so that contrasts in mood and pace articulate the larger span; one which culminates in stark brass recitatives and an inward final adagio.
The work was finely played by the London Sinfonietta, and conducted by Oliver Knussen with a sure sense of where the piece was headed even when its generative melodic line seems only to be inferred. In an insert to the programme book, Knussen paid tribute to the role of Maxwell Davies as mentor in his own formative years as a composer: the expertise and sheer commitment of the performances heard here left one in no doubt that the debt, if such it can be called, was being amply repaid.