About this Recording
8.572362 - MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Beltane Fire (The) / The Turn of the Tide / Sir Charles his Pavan (BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
The Beltane Fire • The Turn of the Tide • Sunday Morning • Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner • Sir Charles his Pavan


The works on this recording comprise a varied miscellany of Peter Maxwell Davies’ orchestral output across the earlier 1990s. Most substantial here is The Beltane Fire, described as a ‘choreographic poem’ and derived from a ballet project which fell through, and premièred by the BBC Philharmonic with the composer at Symphony Hall, Boston on 3 April 1995. What resulted is a set of imaginary dances whose balletic impulse is allotted to the musical ideas and instruments on which these are realized. The underlying confrontation between collective traditions and the advent of new ideas with their implications of ‘progress’ is a familiar premise in Maxwell Davies’ music—graphically so in the vocal symphony Black Pentecost [Naxos 8.572359]—but is represented here through a notably subtle emotional complexity. (Although the piece is arguably best listened to as an abstract entity, the composer has also provided a detailed synopsis covering each of its seven sections, and this can be consulted at the composer’s own website, maxopus.com.

The First Scene opens with sombre phrases on woodwind and strings, percussion adding to the ominous effect. Gradually the rest of the orchestra enters, a livelier passage for upper woodwind and pizzicato strings leading to a jagged outburst on brass and percussion which sees the tempo accelerate into another glowering outburst on brass and timpani. This finds contrast with a spectral passage for flutes, before strings have a brief threnody leading into the First Interlude, a brief yet highly tender and folk-inflected dialogue for violin and harp.

The Second Scene begins with menacing brass then heads into a restless passage in which woodwind (notably cor anglais) are to the fore. Solo violin then unfolds a further folk-like melody which draws in the other strings and brass, subsiding into chorale-like woodwind writing before the strings resume their earlier threnody and the texture gradually thins out. There follows a leisurely expansion in the same rapt atmosphere, leading into the Second Interlude—an animated dance for flute, harp and percussion finally joined by tolling bells.

The Third Scene sees intricately divided strings joined by brass then woodwind as a violent climax is reached. This tails off to leave solo violin musing soulfully over sustained strings, the furtive ambience continuing when the addition of lower woodwind quietly ushers in the Fourth Scene. This initially focusses on suspenseful woodwind and percussion, then strident brass effects a more sustained build-up that also draws in the percussion. Brass and strings are then combined in an even more forceful accumulation, though this is rapidly curtailed.

The Fifth Scene brings the dramatic and musical elements to a head as it builds swiftly to an angry outburst on brass, countered by animated strings and percussion—a third element duly emerging as capering woodwind introduce a new dance-like motif. This is soon transformed into a hectic dance for the whole orchestra, cut off to leave lower brass and marimba musing in its wake. The dance tries vainly to reassert itself, but shimmering percussion initiate a last section in which woodwind muse on earlier ideas as ethereal strings recede beyond earshot.

Even in the context of Maxwell Davies’ wide-ranging output for children and young people, The Turn of the Tide has a distinctive profile. Here the composer’s music has been juxtaposed with that written and/or improvised by amateur players who are situated in five groups, placed between the professionals. It can be tackled by either full or chamber orchestras, with the first hearing given by the Northern Sinfonia and Richard McNichol in Newcastle on 12 February 1993.

The piece takes an evolutionary approach to convey its concern over environmental pollution. In the first section, First Life, lower woodwind and strings emerge—followed by violins and woodwind at the top of their register [8]. Lilting woodwind and strings are joined by livelier strings and percussion in a sudden build-up [9], then dextrous phrases on marimba incite comparable activity on woodwind and percussion [10]. A vaunting theme on trumpet is followed by swirling activity on woodwind and percussion [11], before undulating brass gestures gradually coalesce into a somnolent chorale unfolding over pizzicato strings [12].

In the second section, Creation Established—Life Flourishes, gently trilling arabesques on upper woodwind and percussion create an enticing ambience [13], continued by eloquently wrought brass phrases that are briefly prolonged by lower strings [14]. Strings take up the narrative in an increasingly lively interplay with woodwind [15], then brass and percussion engage in a reticent dialogue which also draws on earlier motifs [16], before the woodwind and strings are discreetly underpinned by percussion as the music stealthily fades away [17].

The third and fourth sections, depicting the flourishing of nature then its gradual decline, are created solely by the amateur players. Maxwell Davies’ own music resumes in the fifth section, The Worst that Could Happen—The Corruption and Dissolution of All Nature Completed, as woodwind muse uncertainly on previous motifs as the texture remains frozen and distant [18]. Lower brass sound a fragmented threnody that swells towards a brief crescendo [19], then woodwind and side drum sound an animated tattoo that builds to a threatening climax [20], while woodwind muse aimlessly as descending strings and strident brass gain impetus [21]. Elements of the last five fragments then combine in a brief yet desperate outburst [22].

The sixth section, The Warning is Heeded—Nature Reborn—The Decline is Reversed, forms a culmination in all respects. Solo trumpet then flute and oboe sound plaintively over upper strings, which latter continue with the melody that is suddenly taken up by the voices over full orchestra in (to quote Maxwell Davies) ‘‘a triumphant dance of all creation’’. Aspects of this are exchanged between strings and brass, voices continuing with the chant prior to an ominous crescendo on brass. The voices proceed as before, their percussion undertow growing more insistent before it leaves them exposed over strings. A final upsurge on brass and percussion results in violent dissonance, but voices (and their message of hope) ultimately prevail [23].

Maxwell Davies’ only designated ‘signature tune’, Sunday Morning was written in 1994 to introduce the Radio 3 programme Brian Kay’s Sunday Morning. In its full version (which makes overt the music’s direct lineage to the lighter orchestral works of Sibelius), this commences with a plaintive melody for woodwind (cor anglais to the fore) over strings that undergoes several changes in both mood and colouring as it rises towards a more uncertain and even ominous culmination, before moving into calmer environs then, at last, regaining its initial poise.

The closing two pieces on this disc are both memorial tributes. Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner was written to commemorate the former artistic director of the London Sinfonietta and was first performed by that ensemble with the composer at Glyndebourne Opera House on 25 October 1989 (six days after the death of the dedicatee). After the plainsong has unfolded sombrely on brass, the strings begin an elaboration that draws in the woodwind as the texture quickly becomes fuller and more expressive. The semblance of a climax is then followed by a final reiteration of the theme which recedes into silence.

Sir Charles his Pavan was written to commemorate Sir Charles Groves, the conductor who had encouraged Maxwell Davies in his earliest years and who also—while at the helm of the BBC Northern Orchestra (later the BBC Philharmonic) during 1944-51—gave many concerts which were attended by the budding teenage composer. Woodwind plaintively intone the pavan (based on a theme that was written by Maxwell Davies when he was twelve), which is heard more sombrely on brass and then moves onto the strings for a more intensive elaboration that culminates in a short-lived climax. The theme presently re-emerges on flute—from where, in the company of other woodwind, it dies down to a subdued and poignant close.

Richard Whitehouse

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