Peter Maxwell Davies
Solstice of Light
Ed Lyon (tenor)
David Goode (organ)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 8 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
On the day itself, this second, more personal, celebration of Peter Maxwell Davies’s 75th-birthday examined the composer’s close affinity with Orkney, his home for nigh on forty years. It also celebrated his output for chorus, a medium that has been a mainstay of his compositional life since early works for children’s choirs in the 1950s. The composer was in attendance, speaking briefly and humbly about the two works performed, both settings of the poet George Mackay Brown.
“Westerlings”, in the composer’s own words, is a “potted history of Orkney”, a series of pictures evoking the Vikings’ crossing of the North Sea in the 8th-century. Few if any passages in this late-night concert portrayed the coastal crags and sea-spray than the opening of ‘Seascape’, the first of four brief vocalises bisecting five poems of George Mackay Brown. Through this vivid scene-setting it was possible to relate to the composer’s vision of the sight and sound of the sea near his home, described as “a crucible of ever-changing miraculous light”. Under the careful directorship of David Hill the BBC Singers were like a soft breath of wind. The evocative settings ended with the Lord’s Prayer sung in the now-extinct language of Norn, an Orcadian dialect, and set with sensitivity and understated beauty by Maxwell Davies.
“Solstice of Light” is a substantial utterance, the cantata that Maxwell Davies completed for the third year of his St Magnus Festival, seven years into his Orkney. It is a nationalistic work, Orkney’s Kullervo, perhaps, though it deals with present-day issues in its wish for a fertile land, as well as the islanders’ interactions with nature and reflections on their many visitors.
As it progresses, the ‘Solstice’ glorifies the union of man and nature, and the centrally placed choral dance is uninhibited, syncopated rhythms running through the chorus as some of the cares of the previous movements are cast off, these sections being separated by demanding organ interludes, themselves responding to the text with a fiery intensity that was strongly communicated by David Goode. At times the complex musical language of these interludes threatened to blow the music off course, with rhythmic and contrapuntal devices stretching the ear’s ability to follow each line, but when the music rested there was a genuine strength of feeling. Goode’s use of the registers and stops available to him on the massive Royal Albert Hall organ produced vividly colourful and expressive music, whether in the humid, oppressive opening to the first interlude (‘The Mild Circle of the Sun’), the fiercely passionate voluntary of ‘Earthbreakers, Hewers of Mighty Stone’ or the extreme emotional ranges of ‘Invocation of the Dove’, introducing the final lap of text.
Tenor Ed Lyon also sang with uninhibited passion, pitching some of the more awkward melodic contours with apparent ease, his piercing tone reaching the corners of the Hall during ‘Norsemen’. Here tenor and organ were together yet alone, facing away from each other both visually and musically. The BBC Singers were excellent throughout, capturing the Brucknerian grandeur of ‘Hawkship’, while responding to the composer’s vivid word-painting (fish described as “Little silver brothers”). They also felt the uncertain times of the final ‘Prayer For These Islands: New Troves’, in which Lyon became the spokesman in a final intonation to St Magnus, a powerful impact, Peter Maxwell Davies finding in Orkney a similar affinity to that between Benjamin Britten and the East Anglian coast.