Saturday, 11 March 2017

Peter Maxwell Davies: Chamber Music on Naxos

I began my review of this CD with the delightful Dances from The Two Fiddlers, arranged for violin and piano. The original work was a short opera written in 1978 for children aged 10 to 14. The libretto concerns two Orcadian fiddlers, Gavin and Storm who are returning home after playing at a wedding. They meet some trolls. Gavin escapes but Storm is taken down into the underworld and commanded to entertain his captors. He is granted a wish that his family will never have to work, but in compensation he remains below ground for more years than he imagined. Like Rip Van Winkle, he reappears many years later, as if nothing had happened. Alas, the world has changed:  pop music is the order of the day, television is ubiquitous. He realises that this is an enchantment put on the populace by the trolls. Only a new fiddle tune can break the magic.
The present two numbers were extracted in 1988. They are the dance of the trolls and the island party get-together where the reinvigorated fiddle tune seeks to restore tradition. Divorced from the opera, these dances make an ideal concert work, however most listeners will keep the old story at the back of their minds. The musical style is that of traditional Orcadian fiddlers with a few ‘Max’ twists and turns. There is also a version for solo violin and ensemble.

I have never visited Fair Isle, but I have sailed past it. Located halfway between Orkney and Shetland, it is well known for its wild life, its cultural heritage and community spirit, to say nothing about the vividly patterned knitwear.  The resident population of around 70 souls is the most remote of the British Isles.
Maxwell Davies has written that the inspiration for his Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle 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.’ He had been invited to a music festival (2002) on the island: no mean achievement for such a tiny community. One of the pieces performed was a demanding vocal work by Alastair Stout called Given Days. This imaginative, challenging and often beautiful piece lasted for nearly half an hour and can be heard on Stout’s website.  Maxwell Davies states that his Trio ‘is an attempt to express my delight at, and my appreciation of, this experience.’ It was written specifically for the Grieg Piano Trio, resident in Norway.

The Trio opens with slow music, evoking the remoteness of this island. Much of the work’s musical material is first presented here. The mood changes with some impressionistic bars before ‘local dance music’ makes an appearance. The development involves some unhurried passages as well as ‘transformations’ of the folk music themes. Much of the work is elegiac: it is certainly not a ceilidh, although there are moments that are witty and exuberant. The underlying musical theme of the entire Trio is a plainsong chant for September 8th, ‘The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’: it also happened to be Maxwell Davies’ birthday.

I wondered if the Sonata for Violin Alone was going to be the most challenging work on this CD.  I was wrong. It is a wonderful piece that has huge intensity, musical variety and considerably lyrical beauty. It was composed in 2013 for the Italian violinist Duccio Ceccanti, the soloist on the present CD.  The first performance was given on the shores of the Lagoon in Venice on 7 October of that year.  
It is difficult to give a verbal description of this piece, save to suggest that it is a perfectly balanced and constructed ‘Sonata’, that is timeless in its effect. It is largely ‘retrospective’ in mood, save for a brief excursion into ‘dance music.’   Listening to this undoubted masterwork for solo violin it is hard to believe that this contemplative piece came from the same pen as some of the outré avant-garde works of the 1950s and 60s. 

The final work I listened to was the Sonata for violin and piano. The topographical references alluded to in this work are a long way from the Island of Hoy in the Orkneys. Maxwell Davies has written that the ‘sonata for violin and piano traces an imaginary traffic free walk across Rome, taking its inspiration from a fantastic proposal in the book Progetti Frammenti di Architettura Italiana…for a continuous walkway from Borromini’s 17th Century Chiesa Nuova, across a reconstructed Renaissance area, della Moretta…down to and over the Tiber, then straight through the present superannuated Regina Coeli prison, transformed into an exhibition space, with glass façades, for ancient Roman sculpture, and up through parkway to the Gianicolo, from where one has breath-taking views over the whole city.’
The music is a balance of haunting beauty and some vigorous outbursts that may refer to local revellers or supressed anger at the destruction of the Via Moretta, demolished and ‘redeveloped’ by Mussolini.  Certainly, the music gives the impression of deep brooding and lost opportunities.
The Sonata was composed for Ilya Gringolts to perform at the St Magnus Festival, Orkney and the Cheltenham Festival, both in 2008.

This disc tidies up several loose ends in the chamber music ‘section’ of Peter Maxwell Davies extensive catalogue, and is closely related to the five-CD cycle of the composer’s ten ‘Naxos’ string quartets.  Three of the four works are ‘World Premiere Recordings’, the exception being the Piano Trio. (Champs Hill Record CHRCD090). The performance of all these pieces is excellent. The liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are informative and include brief ‘bios’ of the performers. The recording is superb in every detail.
All fans of Max will require to own this CD. It is one of the most satisfying discs that I have heard in a while. Surprisingly, the work I considered was going to be the most problematic (for me) turned out have impressed me most.

Track Listing:
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (1934-2016)
Sonata for Violin Alone: dedicated to Duccio Ceccanti (2013)
Dances from The Two Fiddlers (arr. violin and piano) (1978/88)
Sonata for violin and piano (2008)
Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle (2002)
Duccio Ceccanti (violin), Vittorio Ceccanti (cello), Matteo Fossi (piano), Bruno Canino (piano, Sonata)
NAXOS 8.573599
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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