About this Recording
8.572363 - MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Trumpet Concerto / Piccolo Concerto / 5 Klee Pictures (Wallace, McIlwham, Maxwell Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Piccolo Concerto • Trumpet Concerto • Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights • Five Klee Pictures


The Piccolo Concerto, completed less than a year before the daunting large-scale Piano Concerto (Naxos 8.572357), may seem light years away in the essential silveriness of its sound-world. Yet there are more points in common than the fragile song which opens the work might lead us to expect. The composer has to respect his high-frequency soloist with appropriately airy, well-balanced textures: tuned percussion especially set up a kind of northern-lights acoustical glow around the instrument. But once the piccolo sets up a lively dance as variable in metre as its outer-movement counterparts in the Piano Concerto, it is bound to unleash forces beyond its control. There is menace in the brass’s daring extension of the staccato snap heard on muted horns as early as the work’s second bar, encouraging the orchestra to drown out the piccolo’s arabesques: and the last movement, too, suggests a more distant threat heralded by timpani and side-drum which the soloist manages to shrug off in a cascading, recitative-like cadenza clearing the air for one last song. In between, the slow movement sheds complexity, but not mystery, in its stalking bass clarinet melody, ultimately duetting with the piccolo, and in the ethereal harmonics of the central section. Here the piccolo is furthest removed from the world of Maxwell Davies’s other hymn to its special qualities, a 1973 transcription for the instrument along with the celesta of the Song of the Wood Bird from Wagner’s Siegfried.

David Nice

The trumpet has enjoyed a notable place in 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, notably in the sequence of ten Strathclyde Concertos for single and multiple instruments that were written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra between 1987 and 1996, but there have been solo concertos for violin (1985 and 2009), piccolo (1996), piano (1997), horn (1999) and trumpet. The Trumpet Concerto was a commission from the Philharmonia Orchestra for its then principal trumpeter John Wallace, soloist and orchestra giving the premiere under Giuseppe Sinopoli in Hiroshima on 21 September 1988.

Although nominally in the standard three movements, the concerto can also be heard as a continuous three-in-one entity whose movements embody both a fast-slow-fast format and an exposition-development-reprise trajectory. Then there is a programmatic element in that the whole work derives from the plainsong Franciscus pauper et humilis—associated with St Francis of Assisi on whom the composer was planning a chamber opera which remained unrealized, though facets of a scenario such as traces the life and teachings of the noblemen, hermit and eventual saint are discernible in the course of the music. All of which makes this piece one of the most evocative yet immediate among Davies’ later orchestral works.

The first movement opens with sepulchral sounds from lower brass and timpani, wind and strings beginning an upwards crescendo that spreads across the orchestra. The soloist now appears in increasingly decisive terms as a further and more prolonged climax is reached, the music remaining agitated as soloist with upper strings pursue an increasingly capricious dialogue against tuned percussion that soon breaks out into energetic dance-like gestures with virtuosic writing for horns. The texture thins out to leave the soloist and strings in an animated discourse, its brief climax passing to leave woodwind musing uncertainly, whence the soloist returns muted against a delicate tapestry of woodwind and percussion before the final climax is approached in the company of brass and lower strings: the soloist being left exposed and aloft at the close.

The second movement begins with halting string gestures which are latterly joined by woodwind in a gentle dialogue that becomes more intricate when the soloist enters with a high-lying melodic line to which the orchestra responds in subdued yet resourceful terms. Textures become more substantial as soloist and orchestra usher in a climax whose starkness is more startling in context, dying away to the arresting sound of tremolo and glissando strings before solo horn engages with the soloist in an expectant dialogue that leads directly to the finale. This starts out as a lively dance for the soloist heard over vamping strings, brass and percussion entering the fray as the music becomes more aggressive.

The activity now subsides as the soloist has an accompanied cadenza against a discreet backing from strings and woodwind that coalesces into an expansive apotheosis, which in turn clears to leave the soloist sounding plaintive against echoing percussion at the close.

Richard Whitehouse

Like two of Maxwell Davies’ best-loved orchestral pieces, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise (8.572352) and A Spell for Green Corn, Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights features a landscape with figures, or figures in a landscape. The same is even true of the American jeu d’esprit, Mavis in Las Vegas (8.572348), where the glamorous heroine (the composer condensed, in a real-life mis-attribution by hotel computer) briefly leaves the raucous city-scape to observe the bright lights twinkling in the desert surroundings. In Maxwell’s Reel the lights are certainly not neon, and they have the last, incandescent word. This time the basis of the piece is one, very vivid image: the composer recalls going down to a community event in Hoy Hall, and seeing the northern lights above pulsing in or out of time with the sounds from the hall: ‘it was a very strange experience to hear the music sometimes underpinning and sometimes contradicting what was going on in the sky above.’ The lights take over at the end of the piece as the dance is left behind, with a final flare of divided strings, swelling brass and starbursts from the glockenspiel and crotales; but they are also suggested by the three-part double-basses and the snapping muted-horn figure familiar from the Piccolo Concerto right at the start, as a solo cello gently unfolds the Scots reel’s slower counterpart, a strathspey. It is, in fact, a genuine old tune, Maxwell’s Strathspey, drawn from Volume Six of The Scottish Minstrel, published in Edinburgh in 1824; Davies possesses a copy. There are several luminous variations and a bold up-tempo to the quick dance we know as a reel before the roof lifts, as it were, to reveal fully the natural phenomenon above.

David Nice

Music for young performers has been a constant in Davies’ output from the outset. He was for three years the director of music at Cirencester Grammar School, and for whose orchestra he composed Five Klee Pictures in 1959. The score was subsequently lost but in 1976 a set of parts resurfaced, prompting the composer to revise the work for more standard orchestral forces—in which guise it was first performed on 16 October that year at St John’s, Smith Square in London, with James Blair conducting the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra. Each of these five brief movements was inspired by the Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879–1940), whose philosophy of deriving his paintings from the simplest of constituents finds its direct parallel in Davies’ compositional procedures.

A Crusader centres on a striding motion for strings with percussive ‘breaks’ which gradually increases in momentum before its abrupt curtailment. Oriental Garden features eloquent woodwind phrases that aptly conjure up a languorous environment. The Twittering Machine commences with speculative activity for solo brass, woodwind and piano into which more and more instruments intervene with a surging crescendo before the initial music continues exactly as before. Stained-Glass Saint begins with plangent writing for strings and solo oboe that builds to a brief yet powerful climax in which the sound of birdsong is prominent. Ad Parnassum starts with dislocated phrases on brass and piano that coalesce into an intense culmination that draws in the whole orchestra before alighting on a dissonance the more acute for being left unresolved.

Richard Whitehouse

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