Monday 9 February 2015

Very fine, authoritative performances of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Caroline Mathilde ballet suites coupled with Chat Moss and the Ojai Festival Overture from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer from Naxos

Naxos has done a great service to the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies over the last few years. Not only did they commission and record a series of ten string quartets, the Naxos Quartets, surely a first for a record company, but have continued to release the back catalogue of Maxwell Davies recordings made by Collins Classics. This has included the first six of Max’s symphonies and the ten Strathclyde Concertos.

However, much of these re-releases have featured works that are as equally fine and substantial such as Black Pentecost, Stone Litany and The Beltane Fire.

Now from Naxos come the two ballet suites from Max’s 1991 ballet Caroline Mathilde coupled with two other orchestral works, Chat Moss and the Ojai Festival Overture. All feature the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer.


The story of the ballet concerns the English princess Caroline Mathilde (1751-1775), sister of George III, who at the age of fifteen was sent to Denmark to marry the seventeen year old Danish King, Christian VII. The ballet portrays her unhappy marriage, the King's growing madness and her fatal love-affair with Struensee, the King's physician, which leads to their arrest, his execution and her exile.

Caroline Mathilde, Ballet - Act I: Concert Suite (1991)

The music that opens A Public Square brings an 18th century flavour, given a contemporary twist. This is martial music with a wind and percussion to the fore. Soon Max’s lovely string dissonances arrive bringing a passionate feel before both themes combine to bring a very fine texture, slowly building until leading into Inside the Castle introduced by woodwind flourishes before the brass bring a threatening edge. Soon a romantic theme for lower strings slowly and steadily moves forward, somewhat gloomy in nature, to which a flute adds a melody. Brass take over before sharing the theme around the orchestra. There are subtle little outbursts that bring an unsettling feeling. Hovering strings open The Queen's Chamber with little instrumental interventions before a lovely melody for oboe arrives, full of folk inflections, taken up by cor anglais with gentle harp accompaniment, then clarinet.

It is the harp that leads into The Royal Chambers with a flute melody that retains a folk like lilt. Timpani begin to quietly point up the music with gentle rolls before rising to a thunderous level as the music takes off at a frenetic pace full of braying brass. A scurrying orchestra can be heard occasionally behind the folksy melody. More timpani stokes are heard as the music continues its dramatic forward thrust.  The strings bring a slower, calmer section to which a flute adds a melancholy melody. There is a little orchestral surge with harp flourishes before a solo cello brings a plangent theme. The orchestral strings join bringing a shifting melody, very brooding in nature until a solo violin takes the theme above gently hovering strings. Eventually the music rises with brass and timpani strokes to a passionate climax, a terrific section with mighty timpani strokes taking the orchestra to conclusion.

For the opening of Caroline Mathilde, Ballet: Act II: Concert Suite (1992) we return to A Public Square but this time the music is not so martial though there is a strident marching feel with cymbals, drums and timpani. As the music progresses, a theme is heard behind the more dramatic music. A brass ensemble raucously appears but is constantly broken up providing some terrifically riotous sounds, building to a pitch until moving into The Conspiracy which arrives with a noble string theme. There are moments of unsettling discord with woodwind interventions as the melody quietly proceeds on the strings. A further instrumental outburst is heard with occasional more luscious string sounds. Eventually the brass take the music forward though the strings soon return with the brass making interjections, slowly building in power and angst.

We are taken to The Masked Ball - Court Dance where a dissonant dance, a gavotte, appears arising naturally from the music that preceded it. It develops, at times, a menacing feel before a timpani roll brings a more sedate dance rhythm. Eventually the dance rhythm becomes more disjointed, more grotesque before leading into The Masked Ball - Pas de deux, a hushed scene with a glockenspiel, harp and strings. The strings bring a mysterious, shifting theme full of atmosphere building to a climax with cymbal and drum strokes before leading into The Arrest with hushed strings bringing a hesitant mysterious atmosphere. A trumpet brings a theme over the orchestra before various woodwind join in. Soon a laboured forward driving orchestra takes us to another climax with side drum strikes as the laboured theme rises ever more. Brass join before a brief hush but the timpani and cymbals suddenly surge up to a pitch. However, a gentle melody appears though the cymbal strokes and timpani can still be quietly heard.  

We then arrive at The Execution with a slow, quiet, hesitant string theme to which the woodwind then trumpet join. The music rises insistently with harsh drum strokes giving the impression of a march to the scaffold or even that of an axe falling as the music inexorably drives forward. Soon there is a sudden hush, the music tries to rise, with percussion leading to an outburst. A little woodwind melody appears with flourishes from the suspended cymbals quietly in the background as we go into The Exile of Caroline Mathilde a gloomy, mysterious scene.  A hushed chorus of voices appears out of the gloomy orchestral texture and vocalises offstage in this superb moment of pure magic.  A martial sound from drums appears, before the flexatone and woodwind create an ethereal sound.  There are sudden outbursts from the percussion like a whiplash but the hushed orchestra and voices maintain their poise. This is surely one of Peter Maxwell Davies’ most distinctive ideas. Eventually a gentle woodwind melody appears bringing back an earlier theme which leads to a fading coda.

This is very fine music indeed that stands alone on its own merits.

Chat Moss (1993) was written for the school orchestra of St. Edward’s College, Liverpool and refers to the area of marshy land between Manchester and Liverpool near to Max’s childhood home in Leigh. The music rises on a fine string theme before being developed across various woodwind instruments then brass, which brings a more buoyant, rhythmic variant, a rhythm taken up by the woodwind and indeed the entire orchestra. Midway, the music slows to a more sedate, melancholy pace with a lovely weaving of instrumental textures. It soon rises again with brass and timpani leading the orchestra in a lively variant of the theme, full of rhythmic punch. Towards the end the music falls to a hushed orchestral passage, the brass interject, but there is a hushed coda.

Ojai Festival Overture (1991) is another fine example of how Peter Maxwell Davies can create such fine works on demand. The timpani open quietly as a scurrying orchestra takes the theme with various instruments scurrying in and out of the texture.  The music keeps a fine rhythmic bounce and drive, before a lovely folk style theme arrives, shared around the woodwind with strings accompaniment before building to a lively and often riotous coda. This is a great little work.

These are very fine, authoritative performances from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer, a product of his fruitful period of collaboration with them.

The recordings of the Act I Ballet Suite and the Ojai Festival Overture are live recordings made in July 1991 as part of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music. From these excellent results one certainly wouldn't realise that they were made live.

The remaining works were recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, England, a fine venue that results in a first class sound.

There are informative booklet notes.

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