Wednesday 29 February 2012

Wagner youth symphony completion

I recently wrote about the thorny question of completions and performing additions of incomplete works. I now see that Chandos have issued another in their series of Wagner orchestral recordings conducted by Neeme Järvi.

                                                           CHSA 5097

Early on in his career, Wagner composed two symphonies, both of which are included on this disc. Whilst the nineteen year old composer completed the Symphony in C, included on this disc, a symphony in E, written two years later, was left unfinished, with just the first movement and thirty bars of the second movement completed.

It was Wagner’s widow, Cosima, that asked the conductor Felix Mottl to complete the symphony which is now recorded on this disc. Given the problems caused by the families of other composers when it came to making completions or performing editions, such as Alma Mahler’s objections over Deryck Cooke’s work on Mahler’s tenth and the Elgar family’s concerns over the ‘elaboration’ of the sketches of Elgar’s third, it is remarkable that Cosima Wagner should be the instigator of this completion.

This new disc includes two marches, the Huldigungsmarsch was written in 1864 for King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the Kaisermarsch (1871), a commission from the publishing firm Peters, who requested from Wagner a heroic morale booster at a time when the German countries were at war with France. The disc is completed with overture to Rienzi, Wagner’s third completed opera (1838-40).

Although I have previous issues in this series, I haven’t heard this new disc yet. Whether the completion of such an early work has proved worthwhile remains to be seen, but it will be a must for all Wagnerians.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

What happened to Saint-Saëns reputation?

I have just acquired a large volume entitled Camille Saint-Saëns – A Life, by Brian Rees (Chatto and Windus 1999). Amazingly this was the first biography of him in English for thirty years. 

In his lifetime, Saint-Saëns was considered the genius of French music but, given his long life (1835-1921), his reputation was in decline by the time of his death. Nevertheless he was accorded a spectacular funeral with a military escort for his body to the cathedral, an archbishop conducting the funeral service and a silver hearse drawn by six black horses.

Now over ninety years since his death has his reputation really improved? Ask the ordinary music lover what they know of Saint-Saëns music and they will naturally mention Carnival of the Animals and in particular The Swan; they will almost certainly mention the Dance Macabre, perhaps the Third (Organ) Symphony, they may even talk of the Second and Fifth Piano Concertos, as well as the first cello concerto and third Violin Concerto and they might know of his opera Samson and Delila.

What few will remember is that Saint-Saëns wrote some thirteen operas. Type into a search engine or Amazon  looking for recordings of any of these operas and all you’ll get is Samson and Delila. Yet at the premiere of his opera Dejanire the audience surged down the aisles shouting ‘vive Saint-Saëns’.

Saint-Saëns wrote five symphonies, which have all been recorded, five piano concertos as well as a large amount of chamber music and organ music.

So why has Saint-Saëns reputation still not really recovered? No one disputes his technical ability and the sheer craftsmanship of his writing, but many seem to regard the virtuosic nature of much of his music as a failing. Saint-Saëns defended this aspect of his music saying, ‘ It is virtuosity itself I mean to defend. It is the source of the picturesque in music…’

Did Debussy and Ravel effectively blot out all that went before them? If so what of Saint-Saëns’ near contemporaries?

Certainly Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is not remembered for much other than his opera Faust yet he also wrote twelve operas as well as much else including two attractive symphonies

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) seems to be remembered by his Symphonic Variations and Symphony in D minor but again little else yet there is some wonderful chamber music and organ works.

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), despite living well into the 20th century, seems to have fared better. Although his Requiem is his most known and performed work, his chamber and piano music feature regularly in both concerts and recordings. So we can’t accuse Debussy and Ravel of overshadowing him.

Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) was from the generation after Saint-Saëns but suffered a worse fate. He died young, fighting off the Germans at his doorstep with a gun. His four symphonies have now been recorded at least three times but what of the rest of his work. Well, his output was fairly small but there are three operas and a number of chamber works.

Vincent D’Indy (1851-1931), another from the next generation was a ‘one work’ composer remembered only for his Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (Symphony on a French Mountain Song). Yet he wrote three symphonies of which his Second Symphony is something of a masterpiece. This symphony has already been recorded more than once (my own favourite recording is the Monte Carlo Philharmonic conducted by James DePreist on Koch, obtainable through Amazon ) but I’m glad to see Chandos Records undertaking a complete orchestral cycle of his music.

So what about Saint-Saëns and is he really unfairly neglected? My own view is that his reputation has now come around to a more balanced one. Certainly he could not be described as a compositional genius whatever his pianistic skills were. At his best he reaches a beauty and, yes, a virtuosity that are always worth listening to and at times are quite breathtaking. Add to that the unusual textural sounds that he can conjure up, then I am sure that his music will always last.

I have recently listening to Saint-Saëns’ violin concertos, two of which were unknown to me .

The French violinist, Fanny Clamagirand, is the first-prize winner at both the 2005 Kreisler violin competition in Vienna and the 2007 Monte Carlo competition. On this recording she gives a sparkling account of all three Saint-Saëns violin concertos.

Playing a 1700 Matteo Goffriller violin, Fanny Clamagirand not only has the virtuosic technique for these works but brings out the colour and texture. It is Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto that has remained in the repertoire yet the other two have much to offer.

The earlier First Concerto packs much fine music into its twelve minute duration, whilst the exuberant second, written before No.1 but only published much later, should be as popular as the third. Just listen to the opening movement that fairly dances along as well as the beautiful and affecting slow movement.

If you already know the third then listen to the slow movement with its beautiful harmonic effects at the close to hear what a fine soloist this is. Throughout, Patrick Gallois and the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskla give excellent support.

The recording, with the soloist set slightly forward is first rate.

Whilst there is also a fine recording of these three concertos played by Philippe Graffin and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins on Hyperion , Clamagirand brings so much freshness to the music that this issue is well worth considering.

In my next blog I’m moving from lost reputations to one that some critics have tried to damage, to no effect, that of Tchaikovsky.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

More on Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Since my last blog concerning the re-issue of the Collins Classics recordings of Max’s Symphonies, I have since spoken to Naxos and they confirm that during 2012 symphonies 1 to 6 will be issued. This is great news for all those who admire the music of our greatest living composer. Symphony No.1 will be issued later this month.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Another Striggio comes along

Just as one recording of Striggio’s 40 part mass is issued along comes another one from Le Concert Spirituel directed by Hervé Niquet

                                                  GCDSA 921623. Hybrid SACD

Recorded at Notre Dame du Liban, Paris, this recording has a larger acoustic than the one for I Fagiolini at All Saints Tooting. Whilst both Hervé Niquet and Robert Hollingworth approach the work with a similar layout of voices and instruments the resulting sound is quite different.

The couplings on this new CD are also different, with Le Concert Spirituel keeping to other works by Striggio and works by Orazio Benevoli and  his contemporary in Florence Francesco Corteccia.

Which one to buy will very much depend on the couplings but early music lovers will probably want both.

See also:

Venetian Vespers

Thursday 16 February 2012

Striggio’s missing manuscript

I was lucky enough to have been at the Malvern Theatres last Friday to hear the Armonico Consort perform works by Striggio, Tallis, Brumel and Ockegham. This wasn’t just another early choral music concert but a real event including Tallis’ great 40 part motet Spem in Alium as well as Striggio’s 40 part motet Ecce Beatam Lucem.

I did wonder if our seats just two rows back from conductor, Christopher Monks, would be too close but in the event it was perfect and allowed me to hear the polyphonic effects to the full.

There are many specialist early music choirs around nowadays but the Armonico Consort brought, not only technical purity, but also warmth and humanity which is often lacking with some choirs. What also stood out was the quality of the basses in this music that often overlooks that department in favour of the higher voices. Their superb control of dynamics was shown particularly in Byrd’s Ave Verum, where there were quiet passages of rapt spiritual concentration.

I didn’t think that splitting up Brumel’s Missa Et Ecce Terae Motus (or as it is often known ‘Earthquake Mass’) across the concert would work but it did triumphantly and the planning of this concert proved to be ideal. The first part of the concert ended with Striggio’s Ecce Beatam Lucem performed in the round as was Tallis’ Spem in Alium at the end of the concert.  This masterpiece of Tudor polyphony was spellbinding with the theatre acoustic bringing out much more detail than any church acoustic would.

I have no less than seven recordings of the Tallis, in Latin, in English, unaccompanied and with instrumentalists. (Try the Oxford Camerata on Naxos or the Tallis Scholars on Gimell ). Whilst a live performance is always a more thrilling experience, this performance was up there with the best.

For an encore? Amazingly it was a repeat of Spem in Alium. What more could one want. It is only February but this is likely to be the most memorable concert of my year.

Sadly little of the music performed that evening is available on the the Armonico Consort’s CD’s so I will have to direct others to alternatives. However, they will be performing other repertoire in March and April 2012

Alessandro Striggio (c1536-1592) is believed to have written his 40 part motet, Ecce Beatam Lucem, sometime before 1561. By 1566 he had written his 40 part Mass Ecco si beato giorno which was said to have inspired Tallis to write his 40 part motet Spem in Alium.

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Last year Decca issued I Fagiolini’s recording of the two Striggio 40 part works and what a revelation they have proved to be. So why did it take until recently to record Striggio’s mass?

Well the Mass was lost for over 400 years until discovered in the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris by a UC Berkeley professor none other than the brilliant harpsichordist, organist and musicologist Davitt Moroney.

It is the largest known contrapuntal choral work in Western music and was apparently a gift from the Medicis to the Holy Roman Emperor in an attempt to persuade him to grant the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany. Striggio was sent by the Medicis with the manuscript to see the Holy Roman Emperor.

The performances are first rate and the sound produced is wonderful. Included on the CD in addition to other smaller works by Striggio and a short piece by Vincenzo Galilei, father of the famous astronomer, is Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in Alium. This performance is unusual in that there is an instrumental accompaniment in continuo form. Again the performance is wonderful, with the instrumental contribution bringing an interesting sound to the music.

It was once thought that Tallis wrote the work for the 40th birthday of Elizabeth 1 but more recently it has been considered to have been written for the recusant Earl of Arundel for performance at Nonsuch Palace which had an octagonal banqueting hall. Sadly Nonsuch Palace no longer stands as by 1690 it had been completely dismantled by Charles II’s mistress, who sold its raw materials to pay off her gambling debts. For more about the palace see  

This issue also comes with an hour long DVD about the recording of the Striggio Mass and with surround sound tracks of Striggio’s Motet and Mass as well as Tallis’ motet.

I certainly urge any lover of early music or, indeed, choral music to investigate this terrific disc.

In my next blog I will be moving from unfinished works and lost works to a lost reputation, that of Saint Saens.

See also:

Venetian Vespers

Sunday 12 February 2012

Update on Peter Maxwell Davies recordings

Following on from my earlier blog, the great news is that Naxos are issuing the Collins Classics recording of his First Symphony. According to Naxos this CD will be issued later this month.


Hopefully this means that symphonies No. 2 - 6 that Collins Classics recorded will be issued in due course.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Should unfinished works be left alone?

I recently acquired a box set of Schubert’s ten symphonies. Yes that’s right, ten symphonies. I only got the set because I still admire Neville Marriner’s performances with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields. However, it has been fascinating to hear Brian Newbould’s completion of number eight, and his ‘realisation’ of numbers seven and ten. The set even includes completions and orchestrations of two symphonic fragments.  

I have also just purchased Dutton’s new recording of Moeran’s sketches for his Symphony No.2 realised and completed by Martin Yeates.  As a lover of British music this was a must but it did start me thinking about the whole difficult issue of such ‘realisations’.

Of course this is nothing new. We only have to look at the symphonies of various composers that have been subjected to this treatment over the years. Following on from Schubert, there’s Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Tenth, Elgar’s Third, Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth and, recently Allan Pettersson’s First. And these are just those that come immediately to mind.

I’m leaving out operatic works such as Mussorsky’s Khovanshchina and Sorochintsy Fair and Puccini’s Turandot and just thinking of symphonic works.

So should we start ‘tinkering’ with these works? It’s probably a bit late to stop the trend now but it’s worth thinking about what we hope to gain from such ‘completions’. Nobody these days would even question Franco Alfano’s completion of Turandot. Likewise, although others have attempted it, Sussmayr’s completion of Mozart’s Requiem is regularly performed.

Some commentators are extremely sniffy about the completion of any unfinished work but they have usually the advantage of access to the manuscript or sketches, not to mention superior sight reading capabilities. For the rest of us mere mortals these works are completely closed to us.

For me the issue revolves around how much the composer actually left to be worked on and, of course the skill of the person undertaking the completion. It is now generally well accepted that Anthony Payne’s ‘elaborations’ of the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony are beautifully done and the work has entered into the repertoire. Even a recording of the complete Elgar symphonies now seems to always include the third. But not all of what you hear is Elgar even though Sir Andrew Davis, who gave the first performance and made the first recording, could not always tell which was Elgar and which was Payne.

So it is important to know just what you are listening to. Mahler’s Tenth is well documented to show just what Deryck Cooke and others had to work on. In the case of Mahler’s Tenth, the first and second movements were complete with the remaining movements sketched in short score with indications as to orchestration. That’s certainly more than Anthony Payne had to work on.

Oddly Bruckner’s Ninth seems to be stuck with just the three completed movements performed despite an interesting reconstruction of the finale by a series of people (Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca). This completion is not so bad as it seems, given that Bruckner appears to have worked very methodically setting his short score in bifolios of four bars per page, giving a surprisingly near to complete work excepting the orchestration. Naxos has a recording of this completion which is worth hearing

Of course Bruckner’s favoured solution, given that he had doubts that he would be able to finish the finale, was to use his Te Deum in its place. I’d never heard of a performance like this until reading Ivan Hewett’s review in the Daily Telegraph of a concert at the Festival Hall on 4th February 2012 with the LPO and chorus conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Although glad to have heard such a performance, Ivan Hewett had reservations over the joyous affirmation of the Te Deum coming after the ‘resigned spaciousness’ of the third movement.

Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth symphony, left incomplete at his death, left Alexander Raskatov a formidable task given that the sick composer’s sketches were far from neat and tidy. Whether the result is anywhere near what Schnittke intended is extremely difficult to tell from listening to it. It certainly seems very different from the composer’s other works.

I doubt whether many people will be familiar with the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. If you are, then you will be aware that the cycle of available symphonies has, until now, started at number two. This was not because Pettersson had so much withdrawn his first symphony but that he was still working on it at his death. Christian Lindberg has taken the novel approach in making a ‘performing edition’ without adding anything extra. Not even any extra orchestration. This enables the listener to hear what the composer had written up to that point. It makes for a fascinating listen though not as a completed work.

This leads me to Moeran’s Second Symphony which I was looking forward immensely to hearing.

                                                                CDLX 7281

Dutton have, over the last few years, done a tremendous amount for British music, taking on in many ways the mantle of Lyrita. This new issue draws on the sketches Moeran left after his death in 1950. There was talk of a full score in existence but the only manuscript that has been found are the sketches given to the University of Melbourne by his widow, the cellist, Peers Coetmore.

Moeran had worked on the symphony for over a decade and had recurring doubts as to its quality and whether or not it was an advance over his second symphony. Ill health and treatment for alcoholism did not help.

There is no doubt that Martin Yates has done a tremendous service to British music in bringing the sketches to a performable state. This is a four movement work lasting thirty three minutes. The way the movements are linked suggests that Moeran was thinking of a one movement work such as Sibelius’ seventh.

The first movement allegro has much of the feel of the composer’s first symphony with a sweeping melody evoking Moeran’s favourite landscape, that of Ireland. The bracing second movement is an allegro vivace and at just over five minutes has a greater conciseness. The beautiful adagietto is the longest movement and has all the typical Moeran fingerprints. As beautiful as the third movement is, one cannot help wondering what Moeran would have made of it had he lived to complete the work.

My biggest problem is with the last movement. Marked allegro vigoroso e poco maestoso it draws on very little original material. Whilst the ideas for the first three movements were fairly clear, Martin Yates tells us that Moeran left no clear intention as to what he had intended as a finale and had to draw on fragments of sketches on the back of pages of the sketches to construct this movement. Given the circumstances this is a remarkable achievement but, for me, it is the weakest part of the completion.

I’m tremendously grateful that Martin Yates and Dutton have allowed us to hear what exists of the work but it still remains a tantalising thought as to what Moeran might have achieved had his health permitted. Moeran’s friend Lionel Hill spoke of the composer playing ‘his new symphony to me on the piano. I can still see the short score in his neat pencil notation…’ I wonder if this short score will turn up one day?

There is an interesting online article by Fabian Huss on Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland website 

On this disc Martin Yates also gives us his orchestration of John Ireland’s piano piece of 1940/41 Sarnia as well as Moeran’s Overture for a Festival orchestrated by Rodney Newton. No lover of British music will want to miss this issue.

So where does this leave my original thoughts? Given the pleasure that all of the performing editions, completions or realisations have given, I am firmly in favour, so long as listeners remember that these are not the finished works of the composer. Sadly those works are lost for ever…unless a manuscript miraculously turns up.

In my next blog I’m moving from incomplete works to a lost work, Striggio’s 40 part mass Ecco si beato giorno which, for four centuries, was thought to be lost until a set of parts turned up in Paris five years ago.

See also:

A great performance of Bruckner’s completed Ninth Symphony from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Monday 6 February 2012

Is Haydn still underrated?

There’s no doubt that Beethoven is considered a musical genius and Mozart is viewed as one of the all time great composers. So what about Haydn? It’s true that he is talked about as being one of the great Viennese masters but do music lovers actually listen to much of his music. I somehow think that many people go straight to Beethoven or Mozart whilst merely praising Haydn.

It’s true that most of his music has been recorded, even the 126 baryton trios, but who can say that they really know Haydn’s music that well, apart from the very well known works such as the twelve ‘London’ symphonies, perhaps also the ‘Paris’ symphonies or The Creation.

Is it that his very prolificacy tended to work against him? After all, it’s easier to find your way around Beethoven’s nine symphonies and even Mozart’s forty numbered symphonies, though only the last five or six are that popular. In the case of Haydn we have to cope with 106, giving people a problem as to where to start. I would suggest that it’s even more difficult with the string quartets given that Haydn wrote sixty eight against Beethoven’s sixteen and Mozart’s twenty three.

If this is true then this is a shame because at his best Haydn offers, to my mind, more variety than even Beethoven. Haydn is considered the father of the symphony, though that accolade might go to Sammartini.

However, Haydn must certainly take the credit for developing the symphony to what it is today. The 106 symphonies offer so much depth, passion and feeling as well as sheer fun and invention. Amongst the recordings of the symphonies those which stand out are complete cycles by Dorati on Decca and Fischer on both Nimbus and Brilliant Classics

                                                                23 CDs + CD Rom

But there are also the string quartets which I think show an equal development of the form and show as much depth, passion and fun as the symphonies. If you feel like taking the plunge, there are a number of complete cycles of the quartets to consider. My own choice has been a fine Brilliant Classics issue from the Buchberger Quartet

The Buchbergers have been playing this music since the late 1970’s and have Haydn very much in their blood. This might be a bargain set (I bought it for around £35 through Amazon but the playing, recording and notes (on a CD Rom) are top notch.

These are modern instrument performances but the Buchbergers have looked carefully at the question of performance style such as articulation and phrasing, dynamics and use of vibrato, something which would have been used sparingly in Haydn’s time. Whilst using the latest editions of the quartets, they have also studied the autograph manuscripts as well as first editions.

So what has the result of this scholarship been? Well, the most obvious result is that these are not silky smooth, more comfortable performances. For that you may well look to the Aeolian Quartet on Decca or the Angeles Quartet on Philips What you get here is a leaner, edgier style of playing that always keeps your attention and points up the spirited and lively nature of certain quartets. Even in the later works this does not stop the Buchbergers bringing a real depth to the music.

The first three CD’s cover the early five movement divertimenti style quartets Op.1 and Op.2. Believed to have been written between 1757 and 1759 these lighter works still have a lot to offer and show just where the young composer began with the string quartet medium.

It is from the six Op.9 quartets that Haydn showed development. Probably written between 1769 and 1770, the pattern of four movements is established. These quartets show tremendous invention and experimentation which continues through the Op.17 and Op.20 quartets.

By the time Haydn wrote his Op.33 quartets some of the extremes of his earlier works had given way to a greater structural logic and by Op.50 the fifty five year old Haydn brings a more serious and expansive tone.

By the time Haydn wrote his Op.64 quartets his circumstances had changed dramatically. His employer of many years, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, had died and the musical establishment at Esterhaza had been disbanded by his successor. Given a generous pension, Haydn was now free to travel and pursue an independent career that would soon bring him to London. Indeed the Op.71 and Op.74 quartets are in a more weighty style and sound very much as though they were written for a larger concert hall.

Haydn’s Op.76 quartets reach a pinnacle of achievement. Written in 1797, the composer would, by the standards of the time, have been considered elderly. Although written as a set of six, each quartet is very much an individually formed work surpassing all that had gone before.

Where to start then with this set? Well you can listen chronologically and enjoy hearing the development of the quartets or throw caution to the wind and just dib in. For sheer fun, try the Op.20 set and in particular No. 3 in which the Buchbergers bring out the marvellous textures in the music or No.4 that looks forward to Haydn’s later quartets. For a deeper musical experience try Op.50 about which, in his notes, Prof. Buchberger tells a fascinating story of how the autograph manuscript passed through the hands of Hummel and Clementi before travelling via London, New Zealand and Australia and ending up in private hands in Germany. Then there are Op.76 and Op.77 where you can experience late Haydn at his best.

This set includes the incomplete quartet Op.103 as well as Haydn’s own string quartet version of his Die sieben letzten Worte Op.51 (The Seven Last words of Christ on the Cross).

The playing of the Buchbergers is uniformly first rate as are the recordings made between 2002 and 2008 in the Evangelise Burgkirche, Nieder Rosbach, nr Frankfurt, Germany. The notes, provided on a CD-ROM, by Prof. Hubert Buchburger, leader of the Buchburger Quartet, are extremely full and informative.

Of course there will be individual recordings that have more to say about these works but, as an overall survey of Haydn’s quartets, this takes some beating particularly at such a ridiculously low price.

In case you are still puzzling over what a Baryton is, it was a bass string instrument that could be bowed and had underlying strings that could be plucked. It was an instrument that Haydn’s employer Prince Esterhazy played, hence the numerous trios written for it.

Having mentioned Haydn’s Op.103 quartet being left incomplete leads me on to my next blog which will look at works from Schubert to Pettersson that were left incomplete and have been completed or at least made performable. In particular I will look at the recent Dutton recording of Moeran’s Second Symphony.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Peter Maxwell Davies Naxos Quartets

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is, arguably, our greatest living composer. So why then are there so many gaping holes in the recorded repertoire of this composer? Much of the blame is down to the demise of Collins Classics that recorded Max’s first six symphonies, all ten of the Strathclyde Concertos as well as many other of his works.

Some of the Collins Classics recordings have been licensed by Regis Records and I have heard that a label called Retrospective, obtainable through Harmonia Mundi, are to issue old Collins Classics back catalogue. I spoke to HM recently and, whilst not committing themselves, they say that they are aware of Sir Peter being ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Collins Classics catalogue. However, nothing has been released so far.

In the meantime collectors of Max’s music will have to go to Amazon to find second-hand copies, though this can often be expensive.

Peter Maxwell Davis’ Symphony No.9 is due to be premiered in Liverpool on 9th of June 2012 but why hasn’t a record company recorded Symphonies 7 and 8?

Maxwell Davis is perhaps best known from his entertaining and approachable Orkney Wedding and Sunrise but perhaps many people are daunted by his other works. If so, don’t start with such pieces as Eight Songs for a Mad King. This may be great theatre but not a great place to start. Instead I suggest you try such works as the First Violin Concerto played by Isaac Stern, who premiered the work at the 1986 St Magnus Festival, on Sony Classical Modelled on the Mendelssohn concerto, Maxwell Davies’ favourite, this is a melodic work and a great place to start.

If you can get a copy, then the Fourth Strathclyde Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra is another wonderful work ending with a memorable Scottish theme. Recorded on Collins Classics, second-hand copies are often available through Amazon

The record company that has done the most for Maxwell Davis in recent times is Naxos who in 2001 commissioned ten quartets from the composer, subsequently to be called the Naxos Quartets. This must be the first time a record company has acted as a sponsor of a composition. All have a consistent quality and were written between 2002 and 2007. All ten have been recorded on Naxos by the Maggini Quartet.

I have recently listened again to Naxos Quartet No.7. This 53 minute work is worthy of Beethoven. Yes, I put it that strongly. Many of Max’s more recent works make use of mathematical proportions. In the Seventh Naxos Quartet, the composer draws musical parallels with, the baroque architect, Borromini and the style and proportions of seven of his Roman buildings, creating a work of immense power and cohesion.    

Max himself says that it doesn’t matter in the slightest that the listener knows nothing of this – it’s the music that counts. However, as the quartet progresses through its seven movements, it is surely exactly those devices that give structure and such power to the music.

The first movement adagio molto is inspired by the church of S Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and uses the plainsong quae est ista, quae ascendit sicut aurora consurgens to help give the illusion of the large space, full of light. Growing slowly from a sombre opening the movement builds to a climax bursting with shafts light before the music falls back and recedes to the distance.

The second movement, adagio, concerns the church of S. Giovanni dei Fiorento with the delicacy of the opening conjuring up vivid images of a tiny space before a plaintive little tune appears. Part way through, the movement becomes more dramatic with tremolo strings adding sparkle to the music.

The third movement, lento molto, brings more warmth, building from simplicity to a richer fuller sound representing the Roman Baroque of the church of S. Giovanni in Laterano. The fourth movement, Adagio, brings dance like rhythms and circling motifs inspired by Borromini’s Oratorio dei Filippini with its emphasis on triangles and circles.

The fifth movement, lento, was inspired by the Spiral tower of S. Ivo alla Sapienza, with a richly spun plainsong ending with a short climax. The sixth movement, an adagio: scorsa secular, begins with an extended pizzicato passage before introducing a melody that at first seems to tug against two tonal centres before settling and ending quietly.

The seventh and final movement, adagio: postlude, inspired by the church of S. Carlino, starts violently with dramatic slides on the strings before calming to a single violin melody. Eventually all the players join before the quiet, resigned ending.

Don’t worry too much about the underlying inspiration for this magnificent quartet. The music can stand alone as a fascinating and powerful work. I will be returning to this particular quartet again and again.

Also on this disc is the Eighth Naxos Quartet which, at just under 19 minutes, is a light and airy one movement work based on a galliard by John Dowland. Whilst there are moments of drama and mystery in this quartet it is, overall, a bright and airy piece. Dowland’s Queen Elizabeth galliard haunts the whole work but only appears completely towards the end before a quiet close. The work was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II on her eightieth birthday.

The Maggini Quartet play brilliantly and are extremely well recorded.

In the meantime let’s hope the record companies take note and give Sir Peter the recognition he is due by recording and reissuing more of his powerful music. If you want to find out more about this composer, then visit his website .

If you’re still not convinced and would like to get back to more standard repertoire then fear not – my next blog will be on Haydn quartets. Not quite the leap you might think because, of his First Naxos quartet, Peter Maxwell Davis himself says, ‘Haydn looms large’.