About this Recording
8.572359 - MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Black Pentecost / Stone Litany (D. Jones, Wilson-Johnson, BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Black Pentecost • Stone Litany


Among the most significant symphonic composers from the post-war era, Peter Maxwell Davies has written numerous pieces that are hardly less intrinsically ‘symphonic’ than his ten numbered symphonies. These symphonic pieces encompass such extended orchestral works as the Second Taverner Fantasy (1964), the ‘motet’ Worldes Blis (1969) [Naxos 8.572357], the ‘foxtrot’ St Thomas Wake (1969) [8.572349] and the two on this disc—both of them being inspired by the Orkney Islands where Davies has resided for almost 45 years.

The genesis of Black Pentecost actually stretches back over almost a decade, Davies having planned an orchestral piece that duly expanded into his First Symphony (1976) [8.572348]. The catalyst to his composing a work of that name was provided by the threat of uranium mining in the Yesnaby region of the Orkney ‘mainland’, soon provoking a vigorous (and ultimately successful) response from the local population to which Davies contributed the anti-nuclear cabaret The Yellow Cake Review (1980)—from which derive his enduring piano miniatures Yesnaby Ground and Farewell to Stromness [8.572408]—together with the present work. Black Pentecost, a ‘vocal symphony’ along the lines of Mahler’s Song of the Earth or Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, derives its words from the novel Greenvoe (1972) by George Mackay Brown (1921–96), the Orcadian author with whom Davies was to collaborate on numerous occasions and whose envisaging of environmental catastrophe uncannily anticipated both the subsequent threat at Yesnaby and other such projects over coming decades. Completed in 1979, Black Pentecost was premièred at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 11 May 1982 by the mezzo Jan DeGaetani and baritone Michael Rippon with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Rattle (who had earlier taken on the première of the First Symphony with the same orchestra). The vocal writing ranges widely over the course of the latter three movements, taking in scenic evocation as well as reported speech in its relating of the systematic destruction which befalls the imaginary island of Hellya.

The first movement is a purely orchestral evocation of what is to come. It begins almost imperceptibly on strings, against which woodwind gradually come into focus as a mood of sustained seriousness evolves which is enhanced by atmospheric contributions from timpani and tuned percussion. At length the brass enters with a vengeance, presaging a greater activity that sees the essentially polyphonic discourse grow in density and impact. Much of the string writing has a chamber-like restraint and intimacy, but this does not preclude a steadily mounting intensity which draws in the orchestra as a whole towards a powerful culmination—the whole movement having evolved as though an inexorable curve of activity which climaxes in an anguished threnody for strings, brass and timpani.

The second movement opens with simmering activity for woodwind and strings, subtly underpinned by marimba. This continues as the baritone enters with a description of the beginnings of Operation Black Star and the consequent demise of the village of Hellya in its wake, then the mezzo describes the natural environs that centre upon the loch of Ernefea, to which the baritone responds with a description of the polluted environment that has resulted. The third movement then commences with menacing percussion and strident brass chords, strings and marimba now assuming the foreground as the mezzo describes the summary abandonment of a local homestead by its inhabitant before the demolition team moves in. Her expression of regret as to this irrevocable change marks the start of the final movement, to which the baritone responds—over pulsating rhythmic patterns on woodwind and percussion, then against sustained strings—that change is but an instance of the march of progress that has seen man evolve from primitive beginnings to become master of his own destiny. Against softly resounding horns and lower strings, mezzo then baritone alternate with descriptions of the demise of neighbouring villages, then the baritone assumes the guise of the Controller as he explains the necessity of such destruction for the future good of mankind. Gently ticking percussion then intensifying string textures accompany the mezzo as she describes the degradation that follows, with baritone offering an evocation of this ‘brave new world’ as the music recedes into silence.

Stone Litany (1973) remains one of the most impressive works from Davies’ early years in Orkney. The subtitle, ‘Runes from a House of the Dead’, indicates a great deal about its provenance: the inscriptions as left by Viking plunderers during the eleventh and twelfth centuries on the walls of the Neolithic burial mound (though it has been claimed to have functioned as an observatory or a temple that commemorated the winter solstice) known as Maeshowe, which has long been among Orkney’s most totemic monuments. That said, this is not a song cycle in any conventional sense—the words being a dialect of Old Norse which became extinct long ago and hence has the quality of a ‘dead’ language in the way that Stravinsky had utilized Latin in his opera oratorio Oedipus Rex. The underlying form also bolsters the work’s symphonic credentials—with the first, third and fifth of its seven continuous sections being purely orchestral and the remainder deploying the voice less as a conveyor of text than as a wide ranging vocal obbligato such as merges with unobtrusive subtly into the overall texture. A commission from the University of Glasgow for the first Musica Nova, Stone Litany was first heard at Glasgow City Halls on 22 September 1973 by Jan DeGaetani with the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gibson.

The first piece is a prelude with woodwind and flexatone to the fore. The second piece finds the soloist declaiming the Runic Alphabet against the spectral backing of tuned percussion, then the third piece brings a slowly mounting intensity on strings, brass and percussion. The fourth piece apostrophizes ‘Ingbjorg the fair widow’ in surprisingly menacing terms, before the fifth piece continues this ominous mood with restless string textures and shrill woodwind as enhanced by ringing percussion. The sixth piece denotes Lothbrokar’s sons before going on to describe hidden treasure in the region of Maeshowe, the soloist unfolding an elaborate melisma over luminous woodwind and strings as heard against stabbing brass and dextrous percussion. The final piece then invokes (and seemingly with no pun intended) ‘Max the Mighty’, as a recollection such as resounds quietly yet evocatively across time and place.

Richard Whitehouse

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