Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sir Peter Maxwell Davis: Film Music (and other things) from Naxos

The first piece of music by Peter Maxwell Davies that I heard was the iconic masterpiece Eight Songs of a Mad King premiered in April 1969. This ‘monodrama’ had been released on LP in 1971 and I heard it around about the same time as I was coming to terms with Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The contrast could not be greater.   It is a work that I find repellent and fascinating at the same time: which is what I imagine the composer had in mind.
The score for The Boyfriend was written only two years after the ‘Mad King’ and again the contrast is unbelievable.  The film starring ‘Twiggy’ (Leslie Hornby) and Christopher Gable was released in 1971 and was basically a romantic musical comedy.
Richard Whitehouse hits the nail on the head when he states that this score ‘says much for the versatility of… the composer’.  Maxwell Davies made use of the original score of the 1954 musical by Sandy Wilson and re-created it for a large dance band orchestra.  There are seven movements to the derived suite which include ‘Honeymoon Fantasy’, ‘Sur la Plage’, ‘I could be Happy’ and the all important sequence titled ‘Polly’s Dream’.  This music is a sheer pleasure to listen to. Enthusiasts of ‘Max’ will know that the ‘foxtrot’ and other stylised popular dances feature in a number of his works including Mavis in Las Vegas and St. Thomas Wake. In The Boyfriend, the composer is just enjoying himself: there is no deeper subtext. Just occasionally, I felt that the music begins to deconstruct from nineteen-thirties parody into something a little more ‘avant-garde.’  It would make an ideal ‘Last Night of the Proms’ feature.
The suite of music derived from Ken Russell’s film The Devils, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed, is completely different, though equally satisfying. The music written for the ‘titles’ and for ‘Sister Jeanne’s Vision’ is introverted and lugubrious. The ‘Sanctus’ sung by an uncredited soprano comes as a surprise: the twisted theme and dissonant chords that follow are more the stuff of nightmares than visions. Once again, Maxwell Davies makes use of a ‘foxtrot’ theme in the ‘exorcism’ movement but there is little humour here: this is sinister as befits the action on set. The musical parody constantly breaks down. The final movement of this suite is ‘Execution and End Music’ which has some wild dance episodes to reflect the ‘orgy scenes’ and there is a poignant cello solo. The movement becomes more disjointed and downright scary in sound, with a variety of novel orchestral effects.  A limited degree of peace is achieved in the final bars. This horror film with gratuitous sex, violence and deliberate offence to religious sensibilities is not one that I have seen or would choose to see; however, the music is clearly superb.
Listeners to Classic FM can hardly have missed the ubiquitous ‘Farewell to Stromness’ which seems to feature on a regular basis.  The work derives from The Yellow Cake Revue written in 1980. The ‘Yellow Cake’ being ‘deposits of uranium’ found near Maxwell Davies’ home in Stromness, Orkney. The ‘revue’ was written as part of the protests against the possible mining of this substance on these beautiful islands.  There were originally eleven songs, recitation and solo pieces. Two interludes are included on this disc – the ‘Yesnaby Ground’ and the ‘Farewell’. Yesnaby is a stunning part of the coastline a few miles to the north of Stromness. The ‘ground’ refers to the musical form of a ‘ground bass’.  These two works are both thoughtful and meditative. They are a million miles away in their musical substance from works that once defined Maxwell Davies as an ‘enfant terrible’. The composer himself plays these two pieces: they are taken from an undated recording.
The earliest music on this excellent CD is Seven in Nomine dating from 1963-4.  The work is largely based on a melody derived from an antiphon ‘Gloria tibi trinitas’ from a mass of the same title by John Taverner (c.1490-1545). The work has seven movements which commences with a string quartet transcription of the original ‘In Nomine’ for organ found in the Mulliner Book.  The second is an arrangement by Maxwell Davies of the melody making use of modern techniques such as octave displacements and complex manipulation of the notes using a variety of canonical devices. It is dedicated to Benjamin Britten on his 50th birthday. The third was composed to celebrate Michael Tippett’s 60th birthday. The fourth is an arrangement of John Bull’s setting of the ‘In Nomine’ taken from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. It is beautifully scored for flute, harp, viola and cello. The fifth is a complex six-part canon for a large group of instruments including string quartet. The next is a ‘Gloria tibi trinitas’ using music by William Blitheman (d.1591). The finale is original music by the composer which exploits a recitative and acts as a summing up of the various moods and diverse styles of this piece. The work was composed for the Melos Ensemble.  Seven in Nomine was considered by Maxwell Davies as being a preparatory ‘study’ for his large ‘Second Fantasia on John Taverner's In Nomine’ (1964).
The performance (it is quarter of a century old) by Aquarius and Nicolas Cleobury is stunning. The liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are consistently helpful. And the sound quality is great.
I cannot fault this CD. It is a fine exploration of some of the important byways of Peter Maxwell Davies’ music. I guess for me the ‘highways’ are the Ten Symphonies, the Strathclyde Concertos and the Naxos String Quartets. The more ‘popular’ mood of most of the pieces on this CD precludes it being an overview of the composer’s music; however it acts as an encouraging introduction for anyone who still sees ‘Max’ as being the bad boy of British music.
Track Listing
Suite from ‘The Boyfriend’ (1971)
Suite from ‘The Devils’ (1971)
Seven in Nomine (1965)
The Yellow Cake Revue (excerpts) (1980)
Aquarius/ Nicholas Cleobury, Peter Maxwell Davies (piano)
NAXOS 8.572408
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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