About this Recording
8.573599 - DAVIES, P.M.: Sonata for Violin Alone / The Two Fiddlers: Dances / Violin Sonata / A Voyage to Fair Isle (D. and V. Ceccanti, Fossi, Canino)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Sonata for Violin Alone • Dances from ‘The Two Fiddlers’ • Sonata for Violin and Piano • Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle


This recording focusses for the most part on more recent chamber works by the late Peter Maxwell Davies. Such music forms the central part of his composing in this period, notably a cycle of ten ‘Naxos’ String Quartets as emerged between 2002 and 2007 [the whole series is recorded on Naxos 8.505225, 5 CDs), but there are various sundry pieces in which Davies investigates the possibilities of other ‘classical’ chamber combinations—not least the works featured here.

The Sonata for Violin Alone is among Davies’ final works. Composed in 2013, it was first performed on 7th October the following year at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale in Venice, as part of the city’s Biennale Musica. The soloist (as on this recording) was Duccio Ceccanti, to whom the piece is dedicated. Unfolding as a single movement of around 20 minutes, it commences with an intense cantilena that takes the instrument almost to the height of its compass while moving between multi-stopping and austere monody. Although the underlying tempo does not perceptibly alter, an intermittent increase in activity is evident when rhythmic and folk-like elements make their presence felt. This is audible just after the nine-minute mark, with an impassioned outburst such as echoes across what follows until an animated dance music assumes the foreground, though the earlier poise and introspection are soon re-established and the music withdraws into a reverie which holds good through to the rapt final pages. At length this heads off into the stratosphere, just prior to the lengthy and elegiac closing chord.

What is likely to prove one of Davies’ most enduring works for the stage, The Two Fiddlers is an opera for children (based on the Orkney version of a well-known Nordic scenario that concerns two fiddlers at a wedding) which received its first performance at Kirkwall in June 1978. These dances were arranged for violin and ensemble soon afterwards, then for violin and piano in 1988—with György Pauk and Peter Frankl giving the premiere of this version on 19th June that year in Stromness. Although central to the denouement of the opera, with its use of supernatural elements, these make for an effective recital piece in their own right. After a call to attention, the first dance unfolds as a lively and humorous jig. There follows a pensive dialogue with brief syncopated interludes which build to a brusque climax, followed by a heavily accented dance with pungent harmonies. A short interlude for violin alone leads to a characterful dance, followed by a more speculative interplay. The final dance rounds off the appealing sequence with its headlong dash ensuring an energetic and good-natured close.

Composed in 2008 and premiered that 22nd June in Kirkwall by violinist Ilya Gringolts and pianist Alexander Madzar, the Sonata for Violin and Piano is in a single movement that, in the words of the composer, “traces an imaginary traffic free walk across Rome, taking inspiration from a fantastic proposal in the book Progetti. Frammenti di architettura italiana, by my oldest Roman friend, the architect Giuseppe Rebecchini, for a continuous walkway from Borromini’s 17th century Chiesa Nuova, across the reconstructed Renaissance area della Moretta (destroyed to no good purpose by Mussolini), down to and over the Tiber, then straight through the superannuated Regina Coeli prison (transformed into an exhibition space for ancient Roman sculpture) and up through parkway to the Gianicolo, from where one has breath-taking views over the whole city. Although this walk will probably never be realised in practice, it is a wonderful fantasia and while I do not wish to limit the imaginations of players or listeners, I should point out the opening of this sonata refers back to my Seventh ‘Naxos’ String Quartet [recorded on Naxos 8.557399] that concerns Borromini’s architecture, in particular the relevant church; and that the melody like a Lazio folk tune about two-thirds of the way through refers to an incident in the 1950s, when I heard such a tune echoing from behind the high walls of the prison, as sung by a good solo tenor voice. At that date, there were goats with goat herds in the groves just below the Gianicolo. I imagine arriving on the heights of the Gianicolo, when all the bells of Rome’s churches ring out in joyous clangour.”

The work begins with a musing interplay that soon takes on a more forceful and increasingly combative quality, though this itself diversifies as these instruments evolve highly contrasted personas in which elements of recurrence (even if not repetition per se) come periodically to the fore. Notable passages include the dextrous rhythmic interplay just after the eight-minute mark, on each occasion countered by an eloquent violin response; latterly alighting on a folk melody that appears as if the goal to which the whole piece had been heading. This proves to be short-lived, however, and the music soon resumes its unpredictable course while retaining an air of restrained melancholy which builds to a terse final climax before the pensive ending.

Composed in 2002, the Piano Trio was first heard in Kongsberg (Norway) on 26th January the following year by the Grieg Piano Trio. The work is subtitled ‘A Voyage to Fair Isle’, the island that lies in the North Sea midway between the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos. The composer further explains its genesis. “The inspiration for this piece was a trip to Fair Isle, an island I can just see from my home in Orkney on a good day but a place which, under normal circumstances, is difficult to get to and which one would hardly have time to visit. However, I was invited to the first ever music festival there. The physical remoteness and the craggy beauty of this place are well known, though it was the involvement of the population of 70 or so souls in the mounting of a new work by Alasdair Stout which struck home most. It made demands on the island chorus and the folk musicians that would daunt professionals, but which, in performance, gave everyone huge satisfaction. I was most of all moved by this extraordinary expression of a community’s essence: one felt a challenging piece of new music had really permeated, through months of rehearsal, into the spirit of Fair Isle, so as to become a part of its fabric in a way new music seldom can—affecting and even changing the lives of a very special community. My Trio is an attempt to express my delight at and my appreciation of this experience. I based it on a plainsong, proper to the day composition commenced, for the birth of the Virgin, which generates and permeates the whole of the single movement.”

The piece opens with lyrical harmonic interplay between violin and cello, a mood of inward musing barely ruffled with the entrance of the piano as the music gradually assumes a greater rhythmic motion. At length the instruments strike up a much more animated dialogue, replete with dance inflections, which then alternates with more understated passages as a longer-term momentum is inferred. Motivic ideas heard earlier are touched upon, while the violin also has an extensive folk-like melody that serves almost as a cadenza prior to the final section—cello and piano (the violin playing ghostly harmonics) unfold an inward dialogue as seems to distil the essence of this work as a whole into a touching elegy. The cello also has a folk-like solo, after which all three players are caught up in a tense climax prior to the serene closing bars.

Richard Whitehouse

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