About this Recording
8.572357 - MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Piano Concerto / Worldes Blis (Stott, Royal Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Piano Concerto • Worldes Blis


Piano Concerto (1997)

Many composers working in the concerto genre have rushed to oblige the two most written-for instruments, violin and piano. Not so Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. His Violin Concerto—admittedly rising to meet a grand occasion and a great soloist, Isaac Stern—appeared only after 30 years of creative activity, in 1985. Between then and the Piano Concerto, the score of which bears the date ‘24 September 1997’, his series of Strathclyde Concertos to enrich the solo repertoire of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s front-desk players—including the double bass—was immediately complemented by the unlikeliest concerto writing of all, for piccolo.

Stern has said of the Violin Concerto that it ‘challenges the total technique and sensibilities of both player and orchestra’, and the same is true of the Piano Concerto. The work is very much ‘for Kathy’, the soloist on this recording, whom the composer has heard in a wide repertoire; though the two works in which her interpretation has especially caught his imagination, John Ireland’s genial Piano Concerto and a Mozart concerto in which he has conducted her at the Orkney Festival, would seem to have had little bearing on the finished work. Initial talk of a Mozart model using Strathclyde chamber forces yielded to the concept of a virtuoso piece on the scale of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto: ultimately, certain moods are closer to the concerto-worlds of two other composers he cites, Bartók and Prokofiev—especially Prokofiev’s chameleonic changes between sharp-etched activity and brooding atmosphere. Ultimately, it is Stott rather than Mozart or Prokofiev who offers the key: as Max says, ‘I listened to her playing very carefully and much of the piano writing is related exactly to how she plays.’

In practice, at a first hearing at least, the dazzling density of much of the piano writing must provide the thread for the listener’s involvement. Each movement has its own form, though, as in many of the composer’s works, the music is in a constant state of development, right from the tense ‘Scots-snap’ rhythms, glissandi and scalic rushings of a clearly-outlined introduction [1]. A vivacious dance, constantly shifting metre and passed from strings to woodwind while the piano scintillatingly keeps tabs, eventually yields to a rich Andante. Heard first in the orchestra alone, later reiterated by piano, it flanks this first movement’s central activity: dramatic transformation of the material in four contrasting ‘blocks’, which the composer defines as the hub from which he built the whole of the first movement. A familiar array of Maxwell Davies percussion plays an increasingly important role both throughout these four coursings and in a fantastically scored reappearance of the dance material.

Beginning with piano and only the softest of underpinning from bass clarinet, the Adagio [2] proposes a cantabile melody and even a key, C sharp minor, and thickens towards an epic denouement. Then the hardworked pianist takes up the finale without a break [3] launching into variations of the first movement’s dances, again with constantly changing time-signatures but this time with even fewer pauses for thought. Strings articulate another impassioned climax, leading to a substantial cadenza in which the pianist moves from delicate filigree to a dramatic fantasia. Then the final toccata-like runs in octaves bring us closer to Bartók and Prokofiev than anything else in the work—a well-deserved, good-humoured final homage.

David Nice

Worldes Blis (1966–69)

Although he only became latterly known as a symphonic composer, Maxwell Davies produced several pieces that might reasonably be described as ‘symphonic’ in the period from his Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s ‘In Nomine’ of 1964 to his First Symphony [Naxos 8.572348] completed 14 years later. The most expansive of these proto-symphonic pieces is Worldes Blis, composed during 1966–69 (which later year was to see a number of significant works such as the orchestral foxtrot St Thomas Wake [8.572349] and the theatrical piece Vesalii icones [8.572712]) and which was rapidly to gain a measure of notoriety owing to its première, the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts on 28 August 1969, when a sizable number of the audience left in its course. Subsequent revivals, however, have reaffirmed the uncompromising power of this ‘Motet for Orchestra’ in which the outwardly conflicting cross-currents of Medieval and Renaissance principals, an emotional impact redolent of European expressionism from the early twentieth century, and developmental procedures of the Classical symphonic era are brought into powerful accord.

The work’s title has been taken from a thirteenth-century plainchant whose actual text (translated here by Tony Healey) is itself apposite to the music which it inspired:

Worldes blis ne last no throwe
Hit wit and wend away anon.
The lengur that hich hit i knowe,
The lasse hic finde pris ther on.
For all hit is imeynd wyd kare.
Mid sorrewe ant wid uuel fare
Ant at the laste poure ant bare,
Hit let mon wen hit ginnet agon.
Al the blisse this here ant there,
bilonketh at hende wop ant mon.

(Worldly bliss lasts no time at all,
it departs and passes away in a moment.
The longer I have known it
The less value I place upon it,
for it is all mixed with care,
with sorrow and with ill-fortune,
and in the end leaves man poor and desolate
when it has passed away.
All the bliss that is here and there
comprises in the end weeping and lamentation.

The plainchant is first sounded by unaccompanied harps [4] before being taken over by lower strings and winds at the extreme bottom of their compass, the music proceeding to rise through the instrumental registers at an unvaried slow tempo in a process which occupies virtually half of the work’s overall length. As this happens the sound-world gradually becomes more diverse and luminous, with frequent recourse to glissandi in the strings to heighten expression while horns and trombones can be heard intoning the plainchant as a cantus firmus (fixed melody) in the densely polyphonic texture. At length this process reaches its culmination, trumpets being heard above the strings and timpani as the music explodes into the febrile confrontation of strings and brass [5]. A sequence of tensile and often complex developments now gets underway—initially at the same underlying tempo as brass and lower strings muse ominously on the plainchant in a condensed recall of what has already been heard, then with increasing energy [6] as percussion enters the fray with its overlapping ostinatos and violent assaults from cymbals then drums. This subsides to leave upper strings exposed over basses, then brass begin an upwards ascent [7] which gradually presages greater activity from the strings and harps as the music enters a further aggressive phase with percussion—not least the metallic instruments—once again to the fore. This erupts into the maelstrom of strings and brass [8] before an outburst from drums leads to the heightened return of the plainchant on trombones [9] and the curtailed yet also notably intensified reprise of the initial section. From here the texture gradually rises through the registers of strings and brass, but now without any parallel change in the level of dynamics, before it reaches a climactic point in which the so-called ‘death chord’ (as derived from the opera Taverner) emerges balefully right across the whole orchestra with ringing percussion in attendance. The music then disintegrates into a last percussive onslaught, one which leaves only the quietest of dissonances on the brass to resonate gently into silence.

Richard Whitehouse

© Copyright 1975 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd.
Reproduced by permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd.

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