Friday, 16 November 2012

Highly recommended re-releases of Peter Maxwell Davies' Symphonies on Naxos

Over the last year, Naxos have been re-issuing the Collins Classics recordings that were made of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Symphonies No’s 1 – 6. Max was well served by Collins Classics until its demise in 1998 and many of his other works were recorded on this label. Sadly, apart from the first six symphonies, these recordings could only be obtained second-hand and, often, at great expense so Naxos are doing a great service to admirers of the composer.

I had already got the first four of Max’s symphonies on the original Collins Classics CDs but the remainder were getting increasingly expensive to source second-hand. It was with much enthusiasm that I was able to report in my blog of 12th February 2012 that Naxos  had undertaken to release these recordings.

The final two CDs have recently been released by Naxos on two discs covering Symphonies 4 and 5 (8.572351) and Symphony No.6 with Time and The Raven and An Orkney Wedding and Sunrise (8.572352) with the composer conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra respectively.


Peter Maxwell Davies never originally intended to write a symphony, indeed he states that, during his expressionist period, he did not think that he would ever feel it necessary to write large scale works for orchestral forces. In fact the first symphony started out as a result of a commission from the Philharmonia Orchestra for an orchestral work for which Max wrote a single movement provisionally entitled Black Pentecost inspired by a poem by George Mackay Brown that he had already set to music. Maxwell Davies felt that the single movement was incomplete and was ‘budding and putting out shoots.’ It eventually grew into the 58 minute four movement work that we know today and became a turning point in his output. This first symphony, completed in 1976, was premiered by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1978. More symphonies followed, No. 2 in 1980, No.3 in 1984, No. 4 in 1989, No.5 in 1994, No. 6 in 1996, No.7 in 2000, No.8 (Antarctic) in 2000 and more recently No.9 in 2012.

Throughout the symphonies and many other compositions, Max has used the magic square, a mathematical device which offers a wide variety of ways to manipulate pitches and note lengths. However, as Max would be the first to say, the listener does not need to know anything about the methods used to compose the music. The music stands on its own merits. What does come out clearly is how Maxwell Davies’ methods lay down an underlying form and unity that seems to come from such methods. But it is the important influence of Orkney that also runs through these six symphonies.

There are two particular sources of inspiration for Max’s Symphony No.4, the plainchant Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion and a particular incident that occurred one morning when the composer came out of his house, on the island of Hoy, to be confronted by a golden eagle perched on a nearby fence. The symphony is also different from its predecessors in that, whilst written for the forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the scoring has no trombones or tuba and no additional percussion, but the work is nevertheless louder and brighter as the timpani, horns and trumpets have much more input.

It is indeed the brass that makes a strident opening of the first movement moderato before being joined by the woodwind.  The strings appear quietly but soon the brass dominates again. There are darkly atmospheric sounds as the music settles, if it can be said to settle at all, into a plaintive theme for cor anglais. This is rugged music perhaps evoking the Orkney coastland. Brass and strings build to a climax and, towards the end, all subsides into a dark theme on bassoon then anguished woodwind. After an interruption from the brass the cor anglais returns as strings quietly end the movement.

Timpani rolls mark the beginning of the second movement allegro that follows without a break. Woodwind and pizzicato strings follow before trumpets take a dominant role, with woodwind entering to lead to a climax. A clarinet leads to a developed passage for strings eventually leading to a section, full of mysterious sounds and, finally, the return of the cor anglais before being cut off as the third movement  adagio begins with low woodwind playing quietly against shimmering string sounds, conjuring up images of a deserted landscape.  Brass and timpani enter creating a dramatic turbulence but the music soon returns to the woodwind and quietly hesitant strings. Eventually the strings take over, providing a richer rising melody decorated by woodwind interventions cut off at a peak by timpani. This signals a more boisterous section with brass and timpani above agitated strings. The music eventually subsides and woodwind and strings resume their quiet theme. The movement ends quietly on the strings.

The fourth and final movement, marked andante – allegro, opens with jagged stabs from the woodwind replied to by the strings. The strings gain momentum forming richer textures before the woodwind enter in a flurry of sounds floating above the orchestra, working up complex textures and themes. Short stabbing brass sounds appear and slowly increase as the tension builds. As it develops it is as if the music is floating statically. The ear can always follow the gripping lines of each orchestral part in this wonderful evocation of a rugged windswept coastal scene. A solo trumpet enters against the strings but the timpani cut this off and the woodwind return before the solo trumpet returns. Shimmering strings quietly play before the trumpet bursts out and the movement ends quietly on pizzicato strings.

Written for the Philharmonia Orchestra to celebrate its Fiftieth Anniversary, Symphony No.5 is a shorter work, lasting around 26 minutes, and played without a break. The symphony is again inspired by plainchant as well as quoting from Max’s earlier work Chat Moss.

Woodwind open this work with a beautiful little theme before a sudden outburst of brass. There are sounds from the timpani before strings enter with the distinctive but subtle sound of the flexatone, then brass and timpani again resume. A passage for woodwind, strings and flexatone ensues, leading to a steady, almost march like forward moving theme that builds up in richness using the whole orchestra. After a climax the music quietens with woodwind, strings and tuned percussion. The brass enters again in a florid passage but soon drops back to a quietly mysterious section with drooping trombone sounds against woodwind and strings.

The brass and tuned percussion pick up and, with timpani, there is a forward moving rhythm, almost processional, driving the music to a climax of brass, strings and percussion. This slows to something of a plod but still with a steady forward movement. The music descends to woodwind and strings quietly playing a plaintive theme preceding a beautiful, quietly flowing, melody for strings. The woodwind and brass seem to ruminate before brass and bells dominate. Strings and woodwind take over but the brass returns before it drops back again to the woodwind and strings with a solo drooping motif evoking the sound a lone seabird. The full orchestra returns to a glorious broad climax with timpani followed by a battery of percussion and brass before a return to the quietly meditative strings and again the sound of a lone gull. A string tune follows above quietly sliding strings before a bassoon enters in an atmospheric passage. The strings quietly ruminate until the final hushed timpani sound.

This surely is the symphony that newcomers to Maxwell Davies symphonic works should hear first coupled as it is with the magnificent Fourth Symphony.

Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No.6 was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society to celebrate its Fiftieth Anniversary and was first performed in Kirkwall, on Orkney, as part of the 1996 St Magnus Festival. It is dedicated to the Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown.

The germ idea for the three movement Symphony No.6 is a slow theme from his work of a year earlier, Time and the Raven. The first movement adagio – allegro opens atmospherically with pizzicato strings followed immediately by a drooping string motif and a timpani roll before woodwind join in the drooping theme. This develops into a short climax for full orchestra. The music seems to heave backwards and forwards interspersed with quiet ruminative moments over a subtly developing and forward moving undertow. There are lovely little details that evoke the sounds of the wild with the music constantly moving and shifting ebb and flow. Eventually brass and tambourine try to move the music forward to a climax, as if the music is trying to break out in some way, but seems to fall back. A flute theme appears in a Scottish sounding little tune. Eventually a real climax breaks out but still there is the melodic line in the strings to which the music returns. The Scottish sounding theme on the flute returns, backed by fluttering strings before being picked up by a solo violin. A solo trumpet joins against the other brass and hovering strings before quietening to an end.

Timpani strokes open the second movement before a trombone intones a solemn melody interrupted by more timpani before leading to a massive climax. Strings hold a melodic feel which brass and percussion try to break out of. A struggle seems to ensue with wild brass and percussion against the melodic strings. The strings have their way for a moment in a melodic passage before brass returns. By the end there is a final word from the timpani and percussion to suddenly end the movement.

Low strings open the third movement slowly. A powerful, constantly shifting, melody on the strings continues, perhaps one of Max’s most beautiful creations. Woodwind and brass join as do percussion and finally the marimba. Slowly the pace quickens a little as the full orchestra builds to a slight climax providing music of breadth and power. There are magical sounds conjured with strings, marimba and percussion. Towards the end the music seems to heave up from the depths with brass to a climax against anguished string sounds where the Scottish tune can be heard again. Short brass and timpani outbursts signal the end of the work that quietens and peters out on the timpani and percussion.

Time and the Raven precedes the Sixth Symphony by one year and was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Underneath the surface of this apparently lighter work, there is an undertow of darkness. In Peter Maxwell Davies’ own words ‘…the Raven becomes a symbol of warning – in my work, dark music hints at what could be, were attitudes to nationalism not to modify.’

Whilst there is the feeling of nationalistic music, no actual National Anthem is used. This work seems to bring together two elements of Max’s work, the lighter occasional piece and his darker more serious work. Occasionally there is an Ivesian feel as the pseudo anthems emerge from a kaleidoscope of sounds. This is a terrific piece that is more than just an occasional work.

Orkney Wedding and Sunrise was written in 1984 for the centenary of the Boston Pops Orchestra. This most popular work of Maxwell Davies was inspired by an actual wedding attended on the Orkney Island of Hoy that was the first wedding on the island for many years. It is a brilliantly inspired work that takes us from the guests arriving at a wedding, to the band tuning up, dancing, a drunken fiddler, and guests leaving at dawn as a bagpiper welcomes the rising sun. If you haven’t already heard this work then you really should not miss it.

These re-releases are a great addition to Naxos’ catalogue. The performances are everything you would expect from these orchestras under the baton of the composer. There are informative notes by the composer himself as well as Richard Whitehouse and David Nice. Highly recommended. 

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