Violin Concerto No.1
An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
Jack Liebeck (violin)
Robert Jordan (bagpipes)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 12 March, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
A concert devoted to the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies would be an unlikely event at any time other than a major anniversary, yet the composer’s extensive collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra meant this programme was self-selecting: his most sombre Symphony being heard next to his earliest concerto and with a bona fide showpiece to end. Sir Peter was on hand to introduce the works.
Coming after the taut one-movement design of its predecessor, the Sixth Symphony (1995) could easily seem diffuse by comparison – its central conflation of slow movement and scherzo flanked by a large-scale and obliquely evolving sonata-allegro, then an equally expansive Adagio which unfolds as a more potent though hardly unequivocal finale. Throughout the piece, the music’s surface incident is grounded and afforded motivation by a slow-burning formal momentum that is more easily perceived than heard; confirmation of the importance of the Renaissance-derived technique of cantus firmus on Maxwell Davies’s musical thinking from the outset of his career. Earlier hearings of this work had suggested a less than perfect accommodation between form and expression, though there was little, if any, sense of that in the present performance – Martyn Brabbins conducting a powerfully focussed and cohesive account such as made the most of the first movement’s surging paragraphs of activity towards the epiphany of its climax and subsequently musing coda. Those bursts of vivid and increasingly brutal march music that assume the foreground in the second movement were kept meaningfully within context, while the finale’s trenchant progress towards its fateful apotheosis (conceived as the poet and frequent Maxwell Davies collaborator George Mackay Brown breathed his last) fully set the seal on this convincing rendition of an imposing work.
Many will remember the notable premiere of what is now the First Violin Concerto (1985), which was televised live from St Magnus Cathedral in the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall as part of that year’s St Magnus Festival – with Isaac Stern (for whom the work was written) joined by the present orchestra and its then principal conductor André Previn; they went on to record the work. Concerto-writing became the centre of Maxwell Davies’s output throughout the next decade, which is not to decry either the significance or success of this work in its often deft handling of a formal design inspired though never beholden to the example of Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto. It helped that this performance had a soloist in Jack Liebeck able to surmount its numerous technical challenges, without losing sight of the expressive fervency that informs the progress of a sombre though never unduly earnest first movement that balances – in length as well as in intensity – the wistful elegance of its central Adagio and ironic humour of its finale: the latter building to a heightened recall of earlier ideas prior to the eloquent conclusion.
Those present who were unfamiliar with Maxwell Davies’s output might have been forgiven for wondering at his penning genuinely ‘light’ music, but this has been a constant preoccupation and nowhere better illustrated than in An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (1984). Written for the centenary of the Boston Pops Orchestra, these variations on a folk-tune (of the composer’s devising) vividly chart the course of a wedding ceremony and subsequent celebration on the island of Hoy – finally making way for a coup de théâtre with the arrival of a bagpiper in full ceremonial dress for a resplendent apotheosis. With Robert Jordan right on cue, Brabbins directed the RPO with aplomb in a performance that ended the evening in uproarious fashion.