About this Recording
8.573017 - MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Strathclyde Concerto No. 2 / Cello Sonata (Ceccanti, Canino, Italian Radio Symphony, Maxwell Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b 1934)
Strathclyde Concerto No 2 • Cello Sonata ‘Sequentia Serpentigena’ • Dances from ‘The Two Fiddlers’ • Little Tune for Vittorio in Maremma


Despite his image as a Northern European composer (having resided in the Orkney Islands for over four decades), Peter Maxwell Davies has enjoyed an association with Italy stretching back to the late 1950s, when he pursued postgraduate studies in Rome with Goffredo Petrassi and to whom he dedicated his first acknowledged orchestral work Prolation (first heard in July 1959). More recently, his Fourth Naxos Quartet [Naxos 8.557397] was dedicated to the architect Giuseppe Rebecchini, while the Seventh Naxos Quartet [Naxos 8.557399] was inspired by the buildings as well as the plans of seventeenth-century architect Francesco Borromini. The present disc focusses on the composer’s fruitful relationship with the Ceccanti family—cellist Vittorio and his father, conductor Mauro—who had previously championed Davies’ Vesalii Icones, and for whom Davies wrote his instrumental motet Linguae ignis in 2002 [both on Naxos 8.572712]. Vittorio appears here as soloist in four works which underline the consistency of Davies’ approach to the instrument.

Although Davies had previously written concertos for violin and trumpet, it was only with the cycle of ten Strathclyde Concertos (commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) that he investigated the genre in earnest. This series (composed between 1987 and 1996) takes in solo concertos for oboe, cello, clarinet, flute, double bass and bassoon; double concertos for horn and trumpet, and violin and viola; woodwind sextet and a Concerto for Orchestra. The Second Strathclyde Concerto was written in 1987 and premièred by William Conway, together with the composer directing the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, in Glasgow on 1 February 1989. Although this piece consists of three movements which outwardly conform to the traditional fast-slow-fast format, it is marked by a high degree of motivic interplay which runs straight across the work overall (the concertos by Elgar and Walton providing significant precursors in this respect), and with the orchestra frequently used as a collection of individual soloists in their own right.

The first movement begins with a ruminative threnody for the soloist over undulating lower strings, gradually opening-out in expression as woodwind and horns emerge to take the music through to a brief climax. This is curtailed to leave the woodwind sounding pensive over tremolo strings, whereon the soloist resumes his eloquent discourse against a sparing yet active orchestral backdrop. Horns and trumpets over timpani have a brief sequence of cumulative fanfares, then the tempo picks up as the soloist heads towards the main climax which presently draws in the whole orchestra. This makes way for an intensive cadenza, interrupted by strident interjections from brass and timpani—the soloist then continuing over a ‘walking bass’ accompaniment with further interjections, the last of which brings the music to a peremptory halt.

The second movement commences with inward musings on lower strings, out of which the soloist emerges to initiate a further ruminative dialogue that latterly takes in woodwind and horns. Tremolo strings serve to increase the expressive tension, the soloist sounding an increasingly striving tone before the music subsides into an eloquent dialogue in which woodwind are to the fore. A brief cadenza then leads to the introspective coda, brought to a close by lower woodwind.

The third movement opens with a lively interplay between soloist and strings, woodwind and brass entering the fray as the momentum is carried forward over agile timpani. Strident fanfares from brass and timpani then impede the musical impetus without lessening its intensity, the soloist leading the way towards a vehement climax in which the strings urge the former on to an impassioned statement that quickly subsides. The woodwind re-emerge as if to restore something of the initial vigour, yet this proves to be short-lived as the music tapers off towards a ruminative dialogue (similar to that at the very beginning) for the soloist over lower woodwind and timpani—wide-spaced pizzicato chords bringing a sudden eruptive outburst from strings and brass before the soloist sees the work to its ending in a mood of sombre resignation.

The Sonata ‘Sequentia Serpentigena’ was written for Vittorio Ceccanti in 2007, and was first performed by him together with the pianist Bruno Canino in Siena on 10th July 2008. The composer has written: “The Sonata for cello and piano is the direct outcome of having encountered the ‘pievi’ (early medieval rural churches) of Tuscany. In particular, it was inspired by the elusive and enigmatic nature of the imagery of their stone carvings. I have concentrated on just one image, that of the snake, which in Jewish and Christian tradition is a symbol of temptation and betrayal…However, in the pievi, older significances can also be discerned, and these meanings, quite contrary to the usual readings, are now beginning to be fathomed…I took as a basis for the work the Gregorian chant proper to Maundy Thursday, Traditor autem dedit eis signum, concerning the betrayal of Christ by Judas. We start from a conventional Jewish-Christian standpoint, but the meaning of the plainsong is made to modify as the [six virtually continuous] movements progress”.

The work commences with a brief prelude with the cello and piano exchanging linear and chordal gestures. There follows a lengthier and more elaborate movement in which those gestures earlier stated are expanded into an intensive discourse. Next comes a ‘scherzo’ with alternately propulsive and aggressive interplay between the instruments. Following this is an ‘adagio’ (and much the most extended movement) that brings a measure of sustained intensity, with the cello unfolding an eloquent melodic line over a varied and sometimes quixotic piano part that briefly assumes the foreground prior to a climax of coruscating figuration that gradually subsides into more subdued expression, then a final leave-taking high in the cello’s upper register. This is succeeded by an ‘intermezzo’ where the two instruments excitedly trade ideas before a snatch of foxtrot brings about the hesitant close. The finale draws on elements of the earlier movements in what seems a resolute rounding-off, but this subsides into an elegiac conclusion which ascends to the top of the instruments’ registers.

The Dances from ‘The Two Fidders’ is a transcription of a piece for violin and piano, first performed by György Pauk with Peter Frankl in Stromness on 19 June 1988, which is itself derived from the children’s opera of that name. The sequence gets underway with vigorous and dance-like music for cello, soon joined by piano whose restrained yet fleet accompaniment underpins the musical motion as it proceeds to a more lilting passage which is briefly interrupted by a livelier idea, before the piano has the main theme against brusque passagework from cello. This leads to a vamping idea for both instruments that, in turn, makes way for a folk-like theme which takes the music through to its vigorous close.

The final piece was again composed for Vittorio Ceccanti, who writes: “It was an August day in 2008 and I played for Max and our friends who were hosting us in their beautiful farmhouse in the countryside near Pitigliano. After playing Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite, Max went into the house then came back five minutes later with the handwritten page of one minute of music called Little Tune for Vittorio in Maremma, a song based on an original theme in a Scottish folk style. It was the greatest joy that Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite has ever given me”. The piece unfolds as a miniature ternary form in which the initial motif is brought back after a more openly expressive idea, and with a deft credential gesture by way of conclusion.

Richard Whitehouse

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