Thursday, 22 January 2015

Peter Maxwell Davies: The Beltane Fire on Naxos

Listening to Peter Maxwell Davies’ music on this absorbing CD, I recall that the first of his compositions that I heard (circa 1972) was the ‘iconic’ Eight Songs of a Mad King which was premiered in April 1969. I struggled with that work when I first heard it and still do. However, I do recognise that it is a masterpiece: I am repelled and attracted to this music simultaneously. I guess that I had not heard much of Maxwell Davies’ music in the intervening years, until Naxos began a major retrospective of his orchestral and chamber works. Since then, I have come to appreciate the broad range of his musical style and achievement. Listeners need to recall that beside the works from Maxwell Davies’ ‘enfant terrible’ years there is a plethora of music in a diverse range of styles. From the minimalist Farewell to Stromness, which is a favourite on Classic FM, to the huge corpus of ten important Symphonies by way of the score to the film The Boyfriend and a foxtrot for orchestra, the composer has explored a wide range of musical and extra-musical imagery. The five works on this present CD are ‘a varied miscellany of orchestral works’ composed between 1989 and 1994. All are approachable, if sometimes challenging.

I suggest starting an exploration of this disc with Sunday Morning composed in 1994. It is the only example (so far) of a ‘signature tune’ from the composer. It was used to introduce Brian Kay’s Sunday Morning radio programme on Radio 3. This is a lovely, if occasionally ominous, piece which is presented in its full version in this recording. The mood is quite definitely a ‘Northern Landscape’ without being parochial. The liner notes suggest a ‘direct lineage’ to Sibelius’ lighter music. I consider that this piece could become just as popular as Farewell to Stromness.
Sir Charles and his Pavan was composed in 1992 to commemorate the life and achievement of Sir Charles Groves who died in June of that year. As a young composer, Maxwell Davies had received much encouragement from Groves whilst he was conductor of the BBC Northern Orchestra in Manchester (1944-1951).  The mood of the Pavan is typically reflective however there is a considerable climax towards the conclusion. It is a worthy, and often beautiful, compliment to a great conductor.
Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner is a tribute to the onetime artistic director of the London Sinfonietta who died in October 1989.  It is described as an ‘adagio’ for a Haydn-esque orchestra. The work’s main theme is based on the plainchant ‘Cor meum et caro mea exultaverunt in Deum vivum’. (My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God: Psalm 84:2).  This is a solemn but ultimately positive work.

The first of the two major works on this CD is The Beltane Fire (1995) which is billed as a choreographic poem. Originally conceived as a ballet score, it was never performed as such due to disagreement between composer and choreographer. Maxwell Davies has indicated that it is possible to listen to this work as an ‘abstract piece’ reflecting the dichotomy between the pagan forces of Orkney and Calvinistic ‘Reformed Christian beliefs’. Nevertheless the Maxwell Davies website expounds the plot of the ‘book’ created by the composer for the projected ballet. It is worth reading to give an idea of the original conception of the work, although I prefer to hear this music without a programme. The liner notes present a more musical analysis of the piece.
These imaginary ‘symphonic’ dances contrast the rhythms of Scottish folk-music with the more ponderous feeling of ‘ecclesiastical chant-based material.’ I am not sure that Calvinists were too enthusiastic about ‘plainsong’ but perhaps it is simply a musical device?  Certainly the pre-reformation Roman Church was more tolerant of (some) indigenous tradition. The music vacillates between a satisfying warmth and an emptiness and bleakness at the conclusion. It is surely a tragedy of history that Christianity (and other religions) has often tried to destroy or diminish rather than absorb folk-religion and beliefs. But that is a theological discussion for another day.
The Beltane Fire is an approachable work that will certainly inspire and move the listener. It is not a ‘light orchestral work’ as indicated on Maxwell Davies’ website by any stretch of the imagination.  The fact that the composer has chosen to use ‘realistic’ Orcadian fiddle music only serves to highlight the disparity between the two world-views rather than providing light relief. Reference to the ‘plot’ of the ballet will reveal a disturbing, if fascinating scenario. This is a multifaceted work that reflects a number of stylistic markers in Maxwell Davies’ career, including St. Thomas Wake and The Blind Fiddler.

The other main work is The Turn of the Tide which was commissioned by the British Association of Orchestras in 1992. It was first heard on 12 February 1993 at the Lightfoot Centre, Newcastle during the Association of British Orchestras Conference.  The concept of this tremendously pertinent work was to integrate children’s voices and instrumentalists with a professional orchestra adept at playing ‘contemporary’ music.  The piece is a study of environmental disaster presented in an evolutionary programme. The work opens with ‘First Life’ where plants, fish and mankind appear on earth. This is then elaborated into a section where life flourishes and develops in glory. The next two sections give a view of dissipation and decline in the environmental situation. Section 5 unfolds the disaster- The Worst that Could Happen—The Corruption and Dissolution of All Nature Completed. The composer has suggested this could be a tanker spillage or ‘fallout’ from mining for Uranium in the Orkneys and Shetlands. Fortunately, this is a fundamentally positive work so the final section expounds the The Warning is Heeded—Nature Reborn—The Decline is Reversed.
The progress of the music is predicated on a musical conversation between the amateurs and the professionals. Music is presented by the ‘orchestra’ and is then commented on, elaborated or attenuated by the lay ensembles. There is improvisation as well as fully-notated music.
The Turn of the Tide concludes with a ‘dance’ for all the performers as well as a chorus presenting an uplifting paean of celebration.
 All the works on this C were originally released on the defunct Collins Classic label. The sound quality of this CD is excellent. The liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are ideal and give all necessary detail. More information about all these pieces as well as the text of The Turn of the Tide can be found on the composer’s excellent website.

This is a fine disc that presents two of Peter Maxwell Davies’ most characteristic works. It would make and ideal introduction for anyone who has yet to engage with his music. Enthusiasts will be delighted to have this album in their collection. These two large-scale works display to perfection the composer’s gift of synthesising a wide variety of musical styles, moods and techniques. Both also display considerable philosophical, theological and political insight, whatever the listener’s belief system.

Track listing:
The Beltane Fire (1995)
The Turn of the Tide (1992)
Sunday Morning (1994)
Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner (1989)
Sir Charles his Pavan (1992)
The Manchester Cathedral Girls Choir, The Boys of Manchester Cathedral Choir, The Boys of Manchester Cathedral Voluntary Choir, The Choir of Manchester Grammar School (The Turn of the Tide)
BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies

NAXOS 8.572362 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

No comments: