Antarctic Symphony

Composer Portrait – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Maxwell Davies
Quartet Movement
Little Quartet No.1
Little Quartet No.2
Dove, Star Folded
Midhouse Air

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Artea Quartet

Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Prom 27

Maxwell Davies
Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No.8)
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

BBC Philharmonic
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 4 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Two symphonies with extra-musical connotations and a source in plainsong – the ostensible ‘theme’ of this Prom, maybe. What Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Antarctic Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique proved to have most in common however was the sheer generosity of their musical invention. Any expectation that these two huge edifices heard back to back might be indigestible was dispelled triumphantly in marvellously realised performances that went straight to the essence of the composers’ brilliant achievements.

It was surely only a matter of time before Maxwell Davies’s 2001 8th (and avowedly last) Symphony found its way to the Proms. Each of the previous seven has appeared in earlier seasons, starting with No.1 in 1978 under a young Simon Rattle. As a direct response to his sojourn in the Antarctic under the auspices of the British Antarctic Survey, Symphony No.8 stands apart from Maxwell Davies’s other works in this form, each of them towering if essentially abstract musical utterances.

Before what for me was the premiere of the Antarctic Symphony, there was a much more intimate side of Maxwell Davies’s music heard in the “Composer Portrait”, which concentrated on the medium of the string quartet, currently receiving the Max treatment through Naxos’s commission for ten quartets. It was earlier efforts in the genre that we heard here. None earlier than the Quartet Movement of 1952, retrospectively Davies’s first published work. This tiny fragment still surprises; both for what it contains that is predictive of his maturity and for what is totally uncharacteristic. The two Little Quartets exposed a thread of steel running through their gently unfolding discourse. Midhouse Air (1996) for violin and viola is a slow air followed by a Scottish dance that ended the “Portrait” on an upbeat. But the work that made the greatest impression was Dove, Star-Folded, a string trio written in 2001 as a quiet memorial to the historian Sir Steven Runciman, eight minutes of deep musical thought. The performances by the Artea String Quartet (from the Royal Academy of Music) were refined and committed, if perhaps a little under-projected.

What distinguishes the Antarctic Symphony is its exploration of the nature of sound itself, which results in a sensuous, tactile soundworld such as Maxwell Davies has rarely allowed before. This could be heard at the very outset, where a grinding, crunching gesture precisely evoked the sound of ice breaking (did the composer recall Stravinsky citing the breaking of the winter ice in the Russian spring as his very first memory?). An aura of numinous, glistening beauty permeates the entire score, realised through myriad colouristic details – yelping trumpets, baleful trombone blasts, a piping piccolo, the swirl of two harps, clattering xylophone and rumbling marimba. Onomatopoeic detail abounds – a recurring idea where a ‘scotch snap’ stood out brightly against a slow undercurrent and seemed to evoke a flat landscape with a single upright feature on the horizon. At one point I thought I even heard Vaughan Williams’s penguins!

The interval of the major third, first used by Maxwell Davies as a texture in its own right in the Fifth Symphony, seemed everywhere. This textural colour is however folded into a formal architecture that felt deeply satisfying. The balance of slow and fast music in this forty-minute single movement is perfectly judged, above all the inert stillness of the extended slow passage toward the end which issued into a revisiting of the opening Allegro material, now strangely transformed like melting ice under bright sunlight.

As ever when conducting his own music, Maxwell Davies drew from the BBC Philharmonic a performance of great aural and formal clarity. It will be for other conductors to explore the work’s gleaming surfaces with a more supple and sensuous approach. There was a palpable sense of the audience being drawn into a challenging but hugely rewarding work by the authority of the composer’s direction and the very ‘rightness’ of the music itself. Now we badly need the long-promised recording to be issued through Max’s website.

Yan Pascal Tortelier might be just the man to find a Ravelian exquisiteness lurking under the formidable surface of the Antarctic Symphony. Here he was the eye of the storm that is the Symphonie fantastique. Even an indifferent performance of this work has the mind reeling at the astonishing modernity of Berlioz’s musical imagination. This rendition was far from indifferent, although the first two movements hung fire a little, but no more than was appropriate to Berlioz’s formal scheme.

The performance came sharply into focus in the pastoral slow movement, its tentative exchanges being realised with fragile intensity. The ‘March to the Scaffold’ was kept on a tight leash until Tortelier coaxed a blaze of sound out of the orchestra for the final peroration. The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ last movement had some of the most vivid bell sounds I have ever heard, their source and location a complete and appropriate mystery. Here the gloves finally came off – the performance was a riot.

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