Wednesday, 9 January 2013

An early masterpiece and a piano concerto on a grand scale from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in a welcome reissue from Naxos

Following their re-release of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ recordings of his first six symphonies originally issued by Collins Classics, Naxos continue their sterling work for the composer by re-releasing his recording of his Piano Concerto and his large scale orchestral work Worldes Blis. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are conducted by the composer with Kathryn Stott as the soloist in the concerto. 
The Piano Concerto was written in 1997 as a commission by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and is dedicated to Kathryn Stott who gave the first performance on 7th November 1997 at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. 

Written very much with Kathryn Stott in mind this is a concerto on a grand scale. There is a raucous opening from the orchestra before the piano enters and the music settles with an extended solo meditative passage. The orchestra returns to develop the theme until it becomes rich and flowing for both orchestra and piano. The music alternates between a flowing andante and the faster piu mosso, becoming more diffuse in the slower sections whilst building in richness as the music quickens.

Just over half way through the movement the orchestra builds to a climax with percussion and an increasingly complex role for the pianist until suddenly cut off with mysterious orchestral sounds. The piano then drives the music forward until brass announce a brief climax and the music falls back to a meditative section. It is the contrasting elements or sections that cause the music to rise and fall, pull back then surge, as once again the piano drives the music ahead with the mysterious orchestral sounds seemingly dragged along until the piano gives way to end quietly with the orchestra.

The second movement adagio starts with the solo piano picking out a little tune, rather diffusely, before the bass clarinet joins in to underpin the theme. Eventually the full orchestra joins in, developing into a beautiful melody.  The piano part becomes increasingly grand as the music builds before dropping back with piano, solo cello and flute. The tension increases as the movement becomes more in the mold of a grand virtuoso concerto before falling back to end quietly but not before an outburst from the brass.

The final movement, marked allegro, follows without a break. The piano launches straight into a theme related to the first movement with cascading scales on the piano and an orchestra featuring dominant brass and woodwind. Then the orchestra rises up from the depths with a distinctive Maxwell Davies sound and the piano picking out the theme. The orchestra becomes louder and agitated before the piano enters alone in a light textured passage of rippling notes. There follows a virtuoso cadenza before the meditative theme returns. Quiet timpani rolls behind the solo piano bring a haunting sound to the music. Finally the orchestra enters, rapidly building in rhythm with timpani. The piano joins in a climax that has fearsome runs on the keyboard before a climatic end.

From his early experimental works, Max has forged a distinctive sound world from which he has produced what must be one of the 20th century’s finest concertos. One couldn’t ask for more from the soloist, Kathryn Stott, who gives a tremendous performance.

Peter Maxwell Davies wrote his first symphony in 1976 surprising many people who had not expected a symphony from him. Yet, as early as 1969, Max had given us a large scale orchestral work lasting some 40 minutes. This was Worldes Bliss and it must surely be considered an early masterpiece from this composer.

The work, in one movement and subtitled A Motet for Orchestra, was inspired by a 13th century plainchant, which is heard at the opening on unaccompanied harps that slowly pick out the theme. Then lower strings enter, quietly against timpani strokes, as though rising out of the depths of the past. Horns and trombones join, then the upper strings as the theme slowly reveals itself. The strings drift around the main theme that is played by the brass. The music develops yet seems at times to remain static, so subtle is the development. Eventually trumpets are heard over the orchestra as this most impressive of slow sections, lasting some 19 minutes, gradually opens out and arrives at its culmination leading directly to the section marked l’istesso tempo where, after a brief riotous brass and string opening, the preceding first section’s slow theme reappears, seemingly making the same development, but soon building to an impressive climax of brass and trumpets over orchestra.

The allegro that follows finally allows the music to have its head, with percussion, brass and woodwind outbursts dominating in a spectacular section full of energy before quietening, the strings having dominance over the brass and percussion. Harps are heard again in the background along with percussion as a poco piu mosso section arrives where the orchestra again tries to rise and break out, the brass making stabbing sounds against the orchestra. Slowly the music rises and percussion joins, becoming frantic with side drums and metallic percussion until it overflows into a short allegro, where there still seems no release from the tension, with scurrying strings and brass before a timpani outburst leads straight to a final lento, where the timpani at last release the tension and the music subsides with the strings dominating the brass as the music increases in expansiveness. However, the tension returns as before, leading the music to a tremendous percussive climax, with timpani strokes, before a final quiet end.

This is a tremendous work very much capturing the feel of the words of the plainchant  ‘Worldly bliss lasts no time at all, it departs and passes away in a moment…all bliss that is here and there comprise in the end weeping and lamentation.’ thus perhaps explaining the lack of release from tension in this music.

It is hard to believe, listening to this work, that at its premiere on 28th August 1969 at a BBC Promenade Concert, Max remembers that ‘…most of the audience walked out, and most of those who stayed booed.’ By 1993 the reception by a Promenade Concert audience was vastly different. Whilst three elderly ladies apparently walked out muttering in protest, the rest of the audience sat spellbound, at the end giving Worldes Blis a tremendous reception.

As is to be expected, Sir Peter conducts these works with great insight. The recordings made in St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London and All Saints Church, Tooting, London are first rate.

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