About this Recording
8.572351 - DAVIES, P.M.: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (P.M. Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Symphonies Nos 4 and 5


Looking back over the symphonic output of Peter Maxwell Davies is to be struck by its cohesion as regards both form and expression. While aspects of symphonic thinking were evident in his orchestral music from the 1960s—especially the Second Taverner Fantasia (1964) and Worldes Blis (1969), it was only with his First Symphony (1976) [8.572348] that the composer produced a work which tackled the issues of large-scale symphonic organization head on. The Second Symphony (1980) [8.572349] brought a degree of consolidation that the Third Symphony (1984) [8.572350] continued with a Mahlerian layout of two scherzos framed by two largescale adagios. Notable across these works is the increasing emphasis on textural clarity as well as reduction in the use of percussion which, in the Third Symphony, results in an orchestra of almost Classical focus—with timpani being the only addition to the expected forces of strings, woodwind and brass.

From here to the Fourth Symphony is but a relatively small step in terms of instrumentation, the present work deploying an orchestra recognizably that of the late Classical and early Romantic eras. It was composed for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, for whom Davies had previously written a triptych of chamber-like sinfonias and was already in the process of writing a series of ten Strathclyde Concertos for varying combinations of soloists. Something of this is reflected in the constitution of a work that not only looks back to its composer’s early preoccupations (the plainsong Adorna thalamum tuum Sion, sung at the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, is a motivic nexus for all of the thematic material), but also furthers his more recent classicizing tendencies in the underlying formal trajectory of its four movements. Davies himself conducted the premiere with the SCO at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms season in London, on 10 September 1989.

Angular brass fanfares launch the first movement, pensive wind and strings providing an expressive contrast that reaches down into the depths before the cor anglais unfolds a ruminative theme which gains momentum as it passes to the strings and woodwind. Strings and brass presently build to a forceful climax, from where upper strings and flutes subside before a further intensification that features skirling strings against held chords on brass and woodwind—the music all the while gaining rhythmic impetus until the initial idea is brought back climactically. This is then cut off to leave flute and strings musing uncertainly against pulsating timpani and aggressive trumpets, before the cor anglais theme makes its fleeting reappearance against dispersing strings.

Without pause the second movement commences with timpani rolls and a steadily emerging motion on lower woodwind with pizzicato strings. A sudden surge of activity brings trumpets to the fore, woodwind pursuing an intensive dialogue against simmering strings that gains in complexity as it builds steadily towards a brief climax. From here a clarinet interlude leads into an intensive passage for the strings, activity subsiding as the music heads into virtual stasis and a plaintive soliloquy from the cor anglais rounded off by curt trumpet chords.

The third movement begins with a ruminative dialogue between lower woodwind against fleeting gestures on strings, brass and timpani then entering as the expressive ambit opens-out accordingly. Upper woodwind are heard musing wistfully over halting strings, the underlying motion presently continuing on all the strings as a brief climax is soon reached. From here the mood intensifies rapidly as strings and brass engage in a headlong interplay over pounding timpani, but this in turn quickly subsides to leave woodwind and strings once more in a pensive dialogue as the music winds down to a calm yet quietly expectant conclusion on divided strings.

The fourth movement opens with angular woodwind gestures to which the strings provide an active response, the momentum being maintained as woodwind and strings discuss the ideas already outlined in increasingly dense and intricate textures. The entry of the brass increases the emotional tension accordingly, as timpani rolls underpin steadily accumulating activity from the strings, and the brass drives the music onwards to a climax where the main melodic idea is sounded eloquently on strings. This transfers to woodwind and brass, before implacable orchestral chords cancel out any further response and strident trumpets are met with a final pizzicato gesture.

Six years were to elapse before Davies presented his Fifth Symphony—which was duly commissioned by the Philharmonia and given its première by that orchestra, again with the composer conducting and once more as part of the BBC Proms in London on 9 August 1994. Outwardly the work appears to mark a decisive break with the formal thinking of its predecessors, unfolding as a single movement in which—as with the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius—sectional divisions can be readily perceived though not easily identified. Given that the tendency in those earlier symphonies had been towards an intensive transformation of ideas as overrides the divisions across and even between movements, the move to continual metamorphosis of material was both logical and necessary. With its starting point in the tone poem Chat Moss, the work also utilizes a more varied orchestral palette than its two predecessors, with a sizable percussion section often in evidence.

The work opens with the calm intertwining of woodwind, suddenly confronted by a strident outburst on brass and timpani to which strings (complete with the unmistakable sound of flexatone, and latterly underpinned by tuned percussion) and woodwind respond with music of no mean eloquence. The music now moves forward in a rolling paragraph of cumulative intensity that gradually draws in the full orchestra, reaching a rhetorical pause from which it continues with a capricious interplay of strings and woodwind. A sudden hush descends as glissandi on lower brass are offset by harmonics on upper strings, before renewed rhythmic activity from brass and strings leads into a surging orchestral tutti followed by a passionate climax with strings to the fore. This subsides to reveal a pensive dialogue for woodwind, to which strings respond with an eloquent threnody that is succeeded by the woodwind gesture from the opening. From here the activity again picks up as brass and tuned percussion emerge to drive the music forward in a striding processional which is, in turn, curtailed by the strings as the pace slackens in a series of expressive exchanges for woodwind and strings. Reaching a point of near stasis, activity is once again renewed before a sudden gesture from timpani presages the main climax—brass and percussion sounding aggressively over strings before a return to the earlier introspection as strings emerge effortfully from the depths towards a final appearance of the woodwind gesture. From here the texture thins out to leave strings winding down to a spectral interchange of pizzicato and timpani chords.

The acclaim accorded to the Fifth Symphony marks it out as something of a highpoint in Davies’ symphonic output, albeit one whose trajectory he has chosen not to repeat until the recent Ninth Symphony. What remains consistent, of course, is his concern for the integration of expressive contrasts which endows each of these subsequent works with a formal cohesion and inevitability such as can only be designated symphonic.

Richard Whitehouse

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