Peter Maxwell Davies 75th-Birthday Concert at Wigmore Hall

String Fantasias – in F (Z733) & G minor (Z735)
Maxwell Davies
Seven In Nomine
The Last Island [World premiere]
Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp
Maxwell Davies
Kettletoft Inn

Kathryn Tickell (Northumbrian pipes)

Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 October, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Sir Peter Maxwell DaviesA full house greeted this 75th-birthday concert for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – one which set three of his own pieces within a varied and instructive context such as the Nash Ensemble has long excelled.

Of the ‘non-Max’ works, two of Purcell’s String Fantasias were a natural inclusion, as such miracles of contrapuntal ingenuity and harmonic finesse have had a notable influence on many twentieth-century composers – Maxwell Davies not excepted. Played with the appropriate poise (and a sparing use of vibrato!), they sound well on modern strings, too – a quartet from the Nash bringing unforced spontaneity to pieces in F and in G minor. Schubert’s Quartettsatz – vividly if at times recklessly dispatched – pointed to the formal intricacies such as Maxwell Davies has explored in his symphonic music, while Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp – given a lissom rendering here – denoted the textural clarity as well as the distinctive blend of modal and chromatic elements that have been a feature of Maxwell Davies’s later output.

As to Davies’s own works, Seven In Nomine (1963) was ideal for revival in that it prefigures so many of the composer’s ongoing concerns. So the first piece is a subtle transformation of John Taverner, without that element of pastiche such as the fourth and sixth pieces – after John Bull and William Blitheman respectively – insinuate into the instrumental fabric. The second piece is a complex canonic study for Britten’s fiftieth birthday, while the third is a tensile offering for Tippett’s sixtieth. Both the fifth and seventh pieces are entirely of Davies’s own invention – the former a heady traversal through a circular canon, while the latter wraps up the sequence with almost secretive inwardness.

It says much that the Nash Ensemble did equal justice to this and the very different work that followed. Taking its inspiration from two islets bordering the Isle of Sanday in the Orkneys, along with the natural and man-made facets found there, The Last Island (2009) finds Maxwell Davies turning to the string sextet after his intensive involvement with the (Naxos) quartet medium. Lasting around 17 minutes, its single movement alternates slow and fast sections with a formal intensification leading to the climactic emergence of the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ plainchant – often deployed by Maxwell Davies but seldom so ominously as here. In sustained emotional impact, moreover, this is as impressive as anything he has written during recent years.

Kathryn TickellOutward form and duration are as much as that piece and Kettletoft Inn (2006) share. Here a string quartet and double bass make way for Northumbrian bagpipes in what might be thought a rhapsody on traditional tunes were these not of the composer’s own devising. The title again has a Sanday connection – namely, the celebration that takes place outside the pub in question given a hoped-for change in the weather. Yet though there are two energetic sections, cor anglais adding its pert counterpoint, those that frame them are calm, even elegiac in tone – allowing the evocative quality of the pipes full reign.

A quality that Kathryn Tickell, who has done so much to bring the Northumbrian pipes to international prominence, conveyed in full measure. Lionel Friend brought assured direction to proceedings, and the piece concluded a well-planned and highly pleasurable tribute to the Master of the Queen’s Music.

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