About this Recording
8.572354 - DAVIES, P.M.: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 5 and 6 (Clark, Marwood, Nicholson, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, P.M. Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b 1934)
Strathclyde Concertos Nos 5 and 6


Solo instruments have long had a significant place in Peter Maxwell Davies’ output ever since the concise yet demanding Trumpet Sonata (1955) that was his first published work. The concerto as a genre has been a later preoccupation, but one the composer was to pursue intensively following the successful launch of what became his First Violin Concerto (1985). Since then there have been solo concertos for the trumpet (1987), piccolo (1996) [both on Naxos 8.572363], piano (1997) [8.572357], horn (1999) and a second one for the violin (2009). However, Davies’ most imposing contribution is likely to remain his cycle of ten Strathclyde Concertos, commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which undertook all ten of the premières. Composed between 1987 and 1996, this series takes in six solo concertos for oboe, cello [8.573017], clarinet [8.572353], flute, double bass and bassoon; a double concerto for horn and trumpet [8.572353], and one for violin and viola; a concerto for woodwind sextet; before concluding with a concerto for orchestra. As he was also to do a decade later with his cycle of ten Naxos Quartets [8.505225], Davies explained that embarking on such a project had enabled him to make the most of his relationship with the musicians both individually and collectively: much in the way that Haydn wrote for specific players, and combinations thereof, during his years at the Esterházy court.

Unlike the previous two works in this series, the present two concertos both comprise three movements that conform at least outwardly to Classical models. In the instance of the Fifth Strathclyde Concerto (1991)—premièred by James Clark and Catherine Marwood (to whom it is dedicated), the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the composer at Glasgow’s City Halls on 13 March 1992—this was partly determined by the piece’s inspiration in the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (K364) by Mozart. A further notable facet is that these soloists are heard in dialogue almost throughout, with very little recourse to solo writing, and this in turn governs the often intricate harmonies and dense textures of the string orchestra that accompanies them. As so often with Davies, earlier music is also present at various levels—thus the early seventeenth-century song Vanitas by Dutch composer Jan Albert Ban, and the overture to the late eighteenth-century opera L’isola disabitata by Haydn: the harmonic profile of the former and the tonality of the latter being evident at the outset.

The first movement opens with a wistful dialogue for the two soloists, into which the orchestral strings gradually enter as the harmonies become more expansive and the expression more intense. At length the tempo increases incrementally and the upper strings unfold a forceful melodic line, the soloists engaging in ever more intricate dialogue alongside some deft pizzicato writing, until vigorous ascending scales from strings presage a striding rhythm against which the music opens out in texture as it heads towards a sustained culmination with strenuous passagework for the soloists. This in turn builds to a climax which is cut off to leave the soloists musing on their salient material in an inward though eloquent cadenza, the orchestral strings countering with increasingly strident gestures such as bring about a brusquely emphatic conclusion.

The second movement picks up from this with an aggressive opening phase that is immediately followed by a gradually emerging threnody on the strings. This presently subsides to reveal the soloists in ruminative accord, briefly interrupted by sudden outbursts from the strings until the music descends to the bottom of the register; the soloists resuming in even more austere terms over a deliberate pizzicato motion, before the thoughtful closing exchange is interrupted by a sudden burst of tremolo playing from orchestral strings. The third movement then commences with the hectic interplay between soloists and strings that soon makes way for a rhetorical accompanied cadenza over a tense tremolo backdrop. The initial activity tries to resume, but forward progress is held back by the lack of rhythmic impetus until, after a brief crescendo, a further dialogue for the soloists over a spare yet evocative backdrop sees the work through to a calmly questioning close.

Although it was written immediately after its predecessor, and indeed premièred at the same concert by David Nicholson (to whom this work is dedicated), the Sixth Strathclyde Concerto (1991) is a very different proposition. Most distinctive is its scoring—the soloist being partnered by a chamber orchestra without flutes, oboes or violins, but which features bass clarinet and a percussionist playing glockenspiel, claves and tambourine. It helps to give the orchestral sound a lightness and transparency appropriate to the nature of the piece, which was also inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s painting Children’s Games—specifically a sense of uninhibited activity such as serves to conceal age-old qualities of ritual and togetherness. In this respect the role of the percussion is striking, with the three above instruments unfolding a succession of rhythmic patterns and accompanying figures which point up the quizzical and diverting nature in much of what is heard. That said, the work is as finely argued as any in the series and in no sense an interlude viewed in the context of the cycle as a whole.

The first movement begins with an elegant idea for the soloist over pizzicato strings, which is soon joined by clarinets and horns then percussion before resuming its nimble course much as before. The music continues to unfold seamlessly and yet cumulatively through a succession of varied and often piquant encounters with orchestral instruments—heard singly or as an ensemble—until ominous fanfare-like gestures from trumpets and timpani are abruptly broken off in favour of a cadenza which allows full reign to the soloist’s expressive though equally its quixotic qualities. This continues at length until it reaches a subdued pause, from where the soft tones of clarinets bring about the quiet though expectant ending.

The second movement, as in the preceding work, picks up from this with a thoughtful dialogue for strings and woodwind heard against gently ticking percussion—the soloist presently entering with a graceful melodic line which finds a ready response from the other woodwind and latterly horns without its underlying poise being in any way disrupted. At length this yields to a tense backdrop from the strings, from where the music heads gradually into a return of the opening mood and material. The third movement then starts almost haltingly, but quickly hits its stride as the soloist heads forth in the company of woodwind and pizzicato strings, while trumpets make their ominous presence felt with occasional chordal interjections. The music for the soloist evinces discernible folk-like traits as it progresses, while the unforced momentum holds good as the texture becomes more intricate, until a brief eruption on brass and timpani throws the soloist’s presence into greater relief. There is no extended leave-taking, only a gentle winding-down towards the chaste and tranquil close.

Richard Whitehouse

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