St Thomas Wake
Eight Songs for a Mad King
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 3 February, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Two aspects of this Composer Portrait concert worth commenting on from the outset were the very poor attendance, confirming Peter Maxwell Davies to be very much ’out in the cold’ as regards public perception, and that this concert focussed on works either written or completed in 1969 – a decisive year in the course of the composer’s creative development.
A varied one, too, as manifest in the music itself. Eight Songs for a Mad King has proved among the most durable of Davies’s music-theatre works – not always to its advantage (a hideously misconceived attempt by Opera Factory in the late 1980s remains all too clearly in the memory), though Pimlico Opera managed a decent staging some two years back. For this semi-staging, Kenneth Richardson was content to utilise the extent of the Barbican platform in positioning the ’bird-caged’ musicians, and allow some simple but effective lighting to create an appropriate atmosphere.
Any performance stands or falls by the imaginative commitment of the ’singer’ and, while he may not possess the extraordinary vocal range of either Roy Hart (who inspired it) or Julius Eastman (who premiered it), Roderick Williams was impressive both in his grasp of musical intricacies – the many references to the period between Handel and Haydn subtly brought out – and their delineation of George III’s disintegrating psyche. What can seem an exercise in overt psychological overkill took on an emotional power both riveting as theatre and moving as drama. Good to think that, 35 years on, a work which enjoyed such initial notoriety can reveal itself as a defining work of its era.
Neither of the orchestral works heard either side has been without controversy either. In the case of St Thomas Wake, the pitting of simulated inter-war dance numbers with some of Davies’s most rebarbative orchestral writing music is reflected in the physical juxtaposition of dance-band (stage left) and orchestra; the two variously alternating until the delayed emergence of a John Bull pavane on harp, on which both groups converge in a final explosive confrontation. As a response to the inanities of human conflict, as evident in the era which inspired it as that in which it was written and as apparent from the perspective of the present, this “foxtrot for orchestra” remains disturbing.
Equally controversial, if for very different reasons, was Worldes Blis – on which Davies laboured for over three years and which witnessed a major audience dispersal at its premiere. Listening now to this “motet for orchestra”, with its gradual (though never effortful) accumulation of incident over the long-unstated Medieval monody and the subsequent sequence of intensifying developments leading to its climactic appearance, it’s easy to hear how anything other than a supremely prepared performance could become an endurance test.
Not that that happened tonight, thanks to the galvanising effect of Rumon Gamba. Former Assistant Conductor with the BBC Philharmonic, with whom he has made an impressive series of film-score recordings, Gamba’s control over momentum and marshalling of texture as the paragraphs increase in density ensured that the musical as well as emotional outcome of the piece was never in doubt. At 36 minutes, this was likely a performance faster than any other (including the composer’s own), but rarely at the expense of essential detail and without compromising the unfolding harmonic rhythm – part of a process Davies was to refine but not improve upon in his cycle of eight symphonies.
“Refined but not improved upon” is a phrase which might realistically be applied to Davies’s music then as compared to now. Whatever else, the BBC Symphony should ensure that Gamba makes at least periodic visits to London from his current base in Reykjavik, and that – despite the lack of attendees this time round – the works heard tonight do not relapse into musical history. In their very different ways all three pieces enshrine something of their period of composition – and, as such, have continued cultural relevance today and will continue to do so.