, August 2006
This set aims to be a comprehensive introduction to the composer’s work. It includes 2 CDs amply filled with a representative selection music, drawing on recordings from Naxos, Collins Classics, Unicorn-Kanchana and Maxopus (Maxwell Davies’s own company). The booklet contains a substantial extended essay on the composer, by Roderick Dunnett. The CDs also offer an extensive interview that Dunnett had with the composer.
The problem with any set of this sort is that the selection of music must inevitably be just that, selective. Also, to do justice to Maxwell Davies’s oeuvre, a number of his longer, more substantial works need to be included, though inevitably in truncated form. Naxos have not shied away from these, nor have they neglected the trickier, denser aspects of the music.
Maxwell Davies is a composer who, though drawn to complex, serial methods, is capable of writing music of simple, luminous beauty and who has written some wonderful pieces for children. The selection manages to include sufficient of these to make the mixture quite approachable whilst exposing the listener to many of the more taxing pieces.
The selection opens in striking fashion with a movement from the early Trumpet Sonata. Paul Archibald dazzles with his virtuoso playing of the tricky trumpet part. This is a canny start as the surface brilliance of the playing helps disguise the toughness and strength of the music.
Then follows two luminous movements from O Magnum Mysterium in exemplary performances by The Sixteen. Fun follows, in the form of two pavans from the Fantasia and Two Pavans based on Purcell, where the pavans are transmuted into foxtrots. Again the surface brilliance and sheer fun of the arrangements belie the more serious intentions underneath. Again, the playing of The Fires of London under the composer’s direction is exemplary.
The composer conducts the Royal Philharmonic in the shattering conclusion to Worldes Blis. The performance does exactly what an excerpt like this should; it makes you want to hear all of this amazing piece.
All the Sons of Adam is another deceptively simple piece, with references to the antique. The excerpts from Stone Litany are more dense and difficult, but receive fine performances from Della Jones and the BBC Phil.
Taking just a scene from a stage work is difficult. The listener must try to gain a flavour of the whole piece from the merest selection. Kelvin Thomas and Christopher Gillett give outstanding performances in Scene 8 from The Martyrdom of St. Magnus. The baritone part is one of those where the composer seems to be deliberately challenging what is conventionally possible with the voice. The results do not always sound comfortable. This is a problem that I have with some of this composer’s vocal writing. The tenor, on the other hand, brings the scene to an end with a powerfully, lyrically expressive performance.
The Fires of London, this time unconducted, provide a fine performance of the 2nd movement of Image, Reflection, Shadow, featuring the fascinating timbres of Gregory Knowles’s cimbalom. There follows music of haunting simplicity; two of the Seven Songs Home beautifully sung by the choir of St. Mary’s School, Edinburgh.
The Cadenza and Adagio of the Strathclyde Concerto No. 4 for clarinet and orchestra features the clarinet playing of Lewis Morrison with the composer conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The part was written for Morrison and fits him like a glove. The Cadenza is an extended section over sustained string chords. The hauntingly Celtic conclusion makes the clarinet play higher and higher and just evaporate. Quite magical. Again the performance makes me long to hear the whole piece.
Cross Lane Fair is a truly remarkable confection, a suite for Northumbrian Pipes and orchestra describing the fair. This throws together a variety of sounds, sights and tunes into a glorious mêlée.
The first disc concludes with the powerful Adagio from Symphony No. 6.
The second disc opens with the scene 1 from Maxwell Davies’s opera The Doctor of Myddfai. The singers (Paul Whelan and Lisa Tyrrell) have excellent diction, which is good as no libretto is provided. This is a shame because the exact nature of the action can be a little obscure. The vocal lines are in Maxwell Davies’s very angular mode. They are taxing and expressive but not always comfortable either for singers or listener. The scene concludes with a powerful choral section featuring the chorus of Welsh National Opera, for whom the work was written.
The choir of Westminster Cathedral under Martin Baker along with two organists (playing the choir organ and the grand organ) perform the Gloria from the Mass. This is a fabulous performance of an undoubtedly tricky piece. The music is very dense at times and I did wonder how the full mass worked liturgically.
Commemoration Sixty was written to celebrate the end of World War 2. The Largo features music of great approachability in the context of a complex musical structure. I was particularly struck by the slightly jokey brass band contributions.
The musical section of this disc concludes with the opening movement of the 6th Naxos Quartet, played by the quartet for whom it was written, The Maggini.
The second CD concludes with excerpts from a recorded interview - the full version of which is available to those who can play the disc on a PC. Maxwell Davies is a fascinating speaker. His musical reminiscences provide the personal element lacking from Roderick Dunnett’s lucid exposition of the composer’s life and works in the CD booklet. This long essay covers the whole of Maxwell Davies’s oeuvre but dwells on the works recorded so that they are admirably put into context. Dunnett includes many quotations from the composer talking about his music. But I felt I never really got a feel for why Maxwell Davies writes as he does; perhaps that sort of speculative enquiry is for the future.
Dunnett’s essay is rather light on personal background, apart from the composer’s childhood. Perhaps given the space this is inevitable. However there is mention of the composer’s male partner, Colin Parkinson, doing DIY on their new house in the late 1990s. Parkinson’s appearance raises more questions than it answers, especially as Dunnett has previously been reticent about the private side of the composer’s life. But this is a mere quibble. Dunnett’s extended essay provides an admirable context for listening to the music. His strength lies in his ability to provide context for works - using his own and Maxwell Davies’s words to describe what you will hear and why.
This is an excellent introduction to this composer’s music. The content of the two CDs has been carefully chosen. Not only does it reflect the full flavour of Maxwell Davies’s work; it also offers enjoyment to those who are new to his work as well as those who already have experience of it.