Monday, 12 September 2016

A re-issue of Unicorn’s 1990 recording of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ chamber opera The Martyrdom of St. Magnus brings back to the catalogue a performance that is unlikely to be bettered

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ (1934-2016) www.maxopus.com move to Orkney in 1971 had a great impact on his music as did the writings of the Orcadian poet, author and dramatist, George Mackay Brown (1921-1996).

It was Mackay Brown’s novel Magnus (1973) that Max used for the basis of his chamber opera in nine scenes, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus (1976). Commissioned by the BBC for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, it was premiered on 18th June 1977 in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney during the first St. Magnus Festival by The Fires of London with soloists Neil Mackie (tenor), Michael Rippon (baritone), Brian Rayner Cook (baritone), Ian Comboy (bass) and Mary Thomas (mezzo-soprano).

In 1990 Unicorn recorded the opera with the Music Theatre Wales and the Scottish Chamber Opera Ensemble conducted by Michael Rafferty with soloists Christopher Gillett (tenor), Peter Thomson (baritone I), Richard Morris (baritone II), Kelvin Thomas (bass) and Tasmin Dives (mezzo-soprano).

Unicorn’s back catalogue had long since been unavailable until Treasure Island Music www.treasureislandmusic.com started their series of re-issues, the latest of which is The Martyrdom of St. Magnus.

DKP(CD) 9100

The action of the opera takes place in the twelfth century and starts with the Battle of Menai Strait between the King of Norway, supported by Orkney and Shetland and the Earl of Shrewsbury, supported by Wales. It was during this battle that Magnus first distinguished himself as a pacifist. The action then moves to Orkney and the quarrel between Håkon and Magnus, joint earls of Orkney, which culminates in the murder of Magnus by Håkon. For this the action moves forward to the present day, and the martyrdom takes place in a police cell in any contemporary totalitarian state. For the final scene, in which the blind crone Mary is cured of her blindness at Magnus' tomb, the action shifts back to the twelfth century.

It is scored for viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet, guitar, keyboards and a large variety of percussion.

Scene I The Battle of Menai Strait opens with mezzo-soprano, Tasmin Dives as the Blind Mary, a seer, alone singing a Viking spinning song in which the wool is the guts of the soldiers to be killed in the battle. Dives has a fine voice that is most affecting.  Soon guitar strums are heard before Mary becomes increasingly anxious and dramatic, finding some fine textures and handling Max’s vocal outbursts magnificently. Brass announce the Norse and Welsh heralds with some atmospheric string writing.  The two baritones, Peter Thomson and Richard Morris bring strong rich tones as the tension is ratcheted up, rising through a dramatic orchestral passage with brass dominant. When tenor, Christopher Gillett as Earl Magnus, who is refusing to fight, enters singing from Psalm 23 he is quite wonderful. There is a dramatic dialogue between the heralds as Magnus is introduced to the Welsh herald who views Magnus as a coward for his pacific beliefs. Here, there are some especially effective trombone phrases that add to the atmosphere before the music drops to a hushed, haunting passage so typical of Max. Magnus’ Norsemen are victorious and he is not hurt by the arrows.

Baritone, Peter Thomson as the Keeper of the Loom opens Scene II The Temptations of Magnus, winding a fine melody before the dreamlike Magnus asks ‘Tell me your name.’ He explains he is the Keeper of the Loom sent to guard Magnus’ soul. Baritone, Richard Morris as The Tempter is announced by drums and wild brass. He encourages Magnus to be a great warrior with all three characters weaving a terrific dialogue wonderfully characterised, with some atmospheric instrumental passages. Richard Morris is quite superb in his characterisation as he presents Magnus with five temptations, the way of fame and glory, a proposition of marriage, the coat-of-state of the Earldom of Orkney, the possibility of becoming a monk in Eynhallow and a sword for battle. There is the most imaginative use of the instruments of the ensemble with phrases for muted trumpet that brings an almost jazz style moment.  Instrumental dissonances add an increasingly spectral quality as Magnus appears to give way singing ‘Give me my sword.’ But, still kneeling he breaks the sword.

Brass open Scene III The Curse of Blind Mary with some brilliantly written bars. Blind Mary describes the evils of an Orkney divided by civil war between its joint earls, Håkon and Magnus, who have become enemies, before condemning them ‘You are evil, you soldiers’ with just a quiet accompaniment but soon rising passionately and vehemently as she curses both armies.

Scene IV The Peace Parley brings a mournful theme for the strings of the ensemble as bass, Kelvin Thomas as the Bishop of Orkney sings of the wounded. The two Heralds suggest a possible peace formula with the Bishop whilst Blind Mary prays to the saints but Earl Håkon curses her.  The Bishop sings ‘She is what Orkney has been reduced to in the past three years’ all the while with Mary praying. The Bishop becomes passionate when he sings ‘I do not think your treaty will do much good at all.’ before a brilliant conclusion where tenor and baritone sing ‘Dona Nobis Pacem.’ There is an instrumental outburst that, in its wildness, is reminiscent of Eight Songs for a Mad King as we are taken into the next Scene.

In Scene V Magnus's Journey to the Isle of Egilsay Magnus and his herald travel by boat to Egilsay for the encounter with Earl Håkon. Magnus has a premonition of treachery but despite this persists in the journey. Max all the while erects an instrumental backdrop that increases the feeling of impending disaster. Magnus sings to himself ‘Now my good angel, whom God has appointed to be my guardian, watch over me.’ A trumpet intones over the soloist in a most special extended section, wonderfully sung by Christopher Gillett, showing, as if needed, Max’s genius.  There is increasing drama in the ensemble as we go into Scene IV.

Scene VI Earl Hakon Plots to Murder Magnus opens with the Herald of Earl Haken singing ‘My, Lord, Earl Håkon, the Herald of Earl Magnus has made you these three offers.’ Earl Håkon is presented with offers of security from Magnus, who is prepared to undergo exile, imprisonment, or physical mutilation to which a manic sounding Hakon responds with both Richard Morris and Kelvin Thomas bringing terrific characterisation, superbly done over an eerie instrumental layer.  Håkon accepts the third offer, but then resolves that there will be only one earl in Orkney and that he will have Lifolf, his butcher, execute Magnus.

A shrill piercing outburst leads into Scene VII The Reporters where dissonant strings introduce tenor, Christopher Gillett as a reporter speaking of ‘Rumours of new dramatic developments in the peace confrontation between the Paulson faction and the Erlendson faction…’ over an instrumental accompaniment. The reporting is passed to baritone, Peter Thomson before bass, Kelvin Thomas sings ‘The fact that both leaders were to be present in Egilsay marked a highly significant development…’ The ensemble brings a dance theme creating a surreal quality. There are brass fanfares and a chaotic overlay of voices until the ensemble reaches a climax. It is clear we are no longer in the Viking past, but in the present.

The ensemble falls to a hush in the opening of Scene VIII The Sacrifice as a Military Officer sung by Kelvin Thomas asks ‘Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Lifolf, the Butcher?’ bringing a rather wild, manic quality. ‘It is simply a question of hanging a carcass’ he sings. –When Lifolf hears that ‘A man is to be executed’ he refuses but is given no choice. A solo cello mournfully leads forward as Christopher Gillett sings ‘In these times a man must read his own funeral service. You don’t look like a hangman …May the peace of God be with you.’ They hang Magnus to loud screeches from the ensemble. But the execution is that of any prisoner who sets his face against oppression and is prepared to die for his convictions.

Scene IX The Miracle returns us to the 12th century. The ensemble open with gentle, quieter music, hushed stabbing phrases soon appearing. A terrific atmosphere is generated as Blind Mary prays at the tomb of St. Magnus, quietly singing ‘… I’m trying to mind on a prayer, ask the Lord to put a glimmer back in my skull.’ Tamsin Dives is quite superb as she develops this section. The Monks chant a litany in the darkness. A superb moment. Blind Mary screams ‘Ah! …’, ‘A light,’ ‘His Cross’ ‘Faces, dark Faces…’ over the chanting monks, growing in intensity before she bids the audience to ‘Carry the peace of Christ into the world’ as the Monk’s alone bring a hushed end. 

This is a performance that is unlikely to be bettered. The cast is superb. The recording made in the Concert Hall of the Royal College of Music is extremely vivid and there is the usual facsimile booklet and CD insert from the original release complete with original notes, synopsis, and full English libretto.

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