Maxwell Davies
Fantasia and a Ground on Two Pavans, after Purcell
Missa super L’homme armé
Linguae ignis

Fiona Shaw (actress)

Jennifer Langridge (cello)

Peter Bronder (tenor)
James Oxley (tenor)
Pavel Baransky (baritone)
Maxim Mikhailov (bass)

Nicholas Kok

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 8 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

On the very day of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s 70th-birthday, the Proms offered a celebration with this late-night performance of works from his 1960s’ ‘expressionist’ phase together with a very recent item, delivered by the Manchester-based ensemble Psappha.

Psappha has evolved as a kind of northern successor to the Fires of London, the brilliant and explosive sextet which Maxwell Davies co-founded in the mid-60s (initially as the Pierrot Players) and which was the vehicle for the dazzling series of chamber and music-theatre works which poured out of him over the ensuing 20 years. He disbanded the group in the mid-80s in order to paint on a broader canvas, a characteristic gesture of the almost ruthless clear-sightedness with which he has also more recently ‘shut up shop’ on his symphonic cycle and stage works. Psappha revisited this territory (a new recording of the seminal Eight Songs for a Mad King and its sister work Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot has just been released to inaugurate Psappha’s own label) as well as performing some much more recent work of Davies. Both of these aspects featured in their Proms debut, authoritatively conducted by Nicholas Kok.

The Fantasia and a Ground on Two Pavans, after Purcell opened the concert just as they had begun many a Fires concert. These exquisitely outrageous re-inventions of Purcell typically make a serious, even ‘dark’ point under cover of their highly entertaining surfaces, their stylistic references ranging even beyond the ubiquitous foxtrots to take-in bluegrass. Psappha’s performances were lovingly realised but I missed the brazen flamboyance that is at the heart of this music. The tiny band’s sound was also dissipated in the vast space of the RAH, the harpsichord being virtually inaudible from where I was sitting.

The ‘parody mass’ Missa super L’homme armé (1968) is a work very much out of the same stable as the Purcell realisations. It assembles wild and fantastical excursions and disruptions around the bedrock of an incomplete and anonymous 15th-century Mass setting based on the eponymous popular song, which reappears throughout the work in a variety of guises. At various points, a speaker intones extracts in Latin from Luke 22, here very effectively taken by Fiona Shaw (better known to the world as Harry Potter’s aunt). She first appeared before the performance began clad in monastic garb wandering around the arena perusing her book. Was it a Proms nutter? She slowly became drawn into the work’s explicit drama before a kind of reverse transvestite flourish saw her reveal a glamorous dress from underneath her habit and exit out of the hall screaming the final lines of text.

Truth to tell, this is one of the very few works of Davies’s which time has not been kind to. Even in its 1971 revision (which removed a rare electronic dimension from the original), it has a camp sensibility which feels somewhat marooned in the era it was written and the trajectory of the piece can be confusing unless you are very familiar with it. Again, it was not helped by an accurate if under-characterised performance which seemed altogether too polite, although admittedly I may be suffering from an extreme identification with the almost frightening intensity and sculpted wildness of the Fires of London’s performances.

Psappha brought us right up to date with Linguae ignis (2001-2), a beautifully written and proportioned study for cello and ensemble – a combination that explicitly harks back to the Vesalii Icones of 1969 (whose mock-Victorian hymn was prefigured in the Missa). Plainsong is systematically transformed into another, both of which form the basis of the Mass for Westminster Cathedral written at the same time. The first one, ‘Dum complerentur dies pentecostes’, is stated at the outset by the solo cello in unusually unadorned form. It sets in motion one of those rapt, inwardly reflective adagios that are such a feature of Davies’s music. With transparent compositional technique, this morphs into an allegro which reaches an ‘inverse’ climax in the shape of a quiet meditation by the cello on the second plainsong ‘Veni, creator spiritus’. The drawn-out time perspectives retrospectively make the work seem longer than its 13 minutes, a familiar Davies ‘trick’ that can also be heard in the handbell-drenched coda of the First Tavener Fantasia of 40 years earlier. The solo part was delivered in a beautifully eloquent performance by Jennifer Langridge underpinned with great sensitivity by an expanded Psappha.

Two of Stravinsky’s works imbued with the earthy rasp of the cimbalom (an instrument Davies has written wonderfully for) completed the programme. The still amazingly original Ragtime refracts a period dance-music through a Cubist prism in much the same way Davies treated Purcell’s dances. This performance was well-marshalled but I missed something of the essence of the music, Stravinskian tang and bite.

A rare outing for the barnyard fable Renard ended the concert. This marvellous piece positively reeks of Russian earth and was here brilliantly dispatched by Psappha and a plangent quartet of male voices. Special mention must also be made of Tim Williams’s inspired cimbalom playing.

A disappointingly small audience was nevertheless enthusiastic and even knew enough not to applaud between the Purcell realisations (half-hearted applause between movements having become more or less standard at the Proms now).

A slight torpor seemed to hang over the concert as it does at many a late-night Prom. I cannot believe I am the only person who finds it dispiriting to be still listening to music at 11.30 p.m. knowing that I have a last train to catch. Could the BBC rethink its policy on late-night concerts, especially as these days much contemporary music is ghettoised in these slots. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, in alternative venues if needs be, seems a much better time to be listening to challenging music and would surely attract a bigger turnout as opposed to the music professionals who make up a large part of these late-night new-music audiences. Better a full house in a small venue than a smattering across a large one.

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