This set aims to be a comprehensive introduction to
the composerís work. It includes 2 CDs amply filled with
a representative selection music, drawing on recordings from
Naxos, Collins Classics, Unicorn-Kanchana and Maxopus (Maxwell
Daviesís own company). The booklet contains a substantial
extended essay on the composer, by Roderick Dunnett. The
CDs also offer an extensive interview that Dunnett had with
The problem with any set
of this sort is that the selection of music must inevitably
be just that, selective. Also, to do justice to Maxwell Daviesís
oeuvre, a number of his longer, more substantial works need
to be included, though inevitably in truncated form. Naxos
have not shied away from these, nor have they neglected the
trickier, denser aspects of the music.
Maxwell Davies is a composer who, though drawn to complex,
serial methods, is capable of writing music of simple, luminous
beauty and who has written some wonderful pieces for children.
The selection manages to include sufficient of these to make
the mixture quite approachable whilst exposing the listener
to many of the more taxing pieces.
The selection opens in striking fashion with a movement
from the early Trumpet Sonata. Paul Archibald dazzles with
his virtuoso playing of the tricky trumpet part. This is
a canny start as the surface brilliance of the playing helps
disguise the toughness and strength of the music.
Then follows two luminous movements from O Magnum
Mysterium in exemplary performances by The Sixteen.
Fun follows, in the form of two pavans from the Fantasia
and Two Pavans based on Purcell, where the pavans are
transmuted into foxtrots. Again the surface brilliance
and sheer fun of the arrangements belie the more serious
intentions underneath. Again, the playing of The Fires
of London under the composerís direction is exemplary.
The composer conducts the Royal Philharmonic in the
shattering conclusion to Worldes Blis. The performance
does exactly what an excerpt like this should; it makes you
want to hear all of this amazing piece.
All the Sons of Adam is another deceptively simple piece, with references
to the antique. The excerpts from Stone Litany are
more dense and difficult, but receive fine performances from
Della Jones and the BBC Phil.
Taking just a scene from a stage work is difficult.
The listener must try to gain a flavour of the whole piece
from the merest selection. Kelvin Thomas and Christopher
Gillett give outstanding performances in Scene 8 from The
Martyrdom of St. Magnus. The baritone part is one of
those where the composer seems to be deliberately challenging
what is conventionally possible with the voice. The results
do not always sound comfortable. This is a problem that I
have with some of this composerís vocal writing. The tenor,
on the other hand, brings the scene to an end with a powerfully,
lyrically expressive performance.
The Fires of London, this time unconducted, provide
a fine performance of the 2nd movement of Image,
Reflection, Shadow, featuring the fascinating timbres
of Gregory Knowlesís cimbalom. There follows music of haunting
simplicity; two of the Seven Songs Home beautifully
sung by the choir of St. Maryís School, Edinburgh.
The Cadenza and Adagio of the Strathclyde Concerto
No. 4 for clarinet and orchestra features the clarinet
playing of Lewis Morrison with the composer conducting
the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The part was written for
Morrison and fits him like a glove. The Cadenza is an extended
section over sustained string chords. The hauntingly Celtic
conclusion makes the clarinet play higher and higher and
just evaporate. Quite magical. Again the performance makes
me long to hear the whole piece.
Cross Lane Fair is a truly remarkable confection,
a suite for Northumbrian Pipes and orchestra describing
the fair. This throws together
a variety of sounds, sights and tunes into a glorious mÍlťe.
The first disc concludes with the powerful Adagio from Symphony
The second disc opens with the scene 1 from Maxwell
Daviesís opera The Doctor of Myddfai. The singers
(Paul Whelan and Lisa Tyrrell) have excellent diction, which
is good as no libretto is provided. This is a shame because
the exact nature of the action can be a little obscure. The
vocal lines are in Maxwell Daviesís very angular mode. They
are taxing and expressive but not always comfortable either
for singers or listener. The scene concludes with a powerful
choral section featuring the chorus of Welsh National Opera,
for whom the work was written.
The choir of Westminster Cathedral under Martin Baker
along with two organists (playing the choir organ and the
grand organ) perform the Gloria from the Mass. This
is a fabulous performance of an undoubtedly tricky piece.
The music is very dense at times and I did wonder how the
full mass worked liturgically.
Commemoration Sixty was written to celebrate the end of World War 2. The
Largo features music of great approachability in the context
of a complex musical structure. I was particularly struck
by the slightly jokey brass band contributions.
The musical section of this disc concludes with the
opening movement of the 6th Naxos Quartet, played
by the quartet for whom it was written, The Maggini.
The second CD concludes with excerpts from a recorded
interview - the full version of which is available to those
who can play the disc on a PC. Maxwell Davies is a fascinating
speaker. His musical reminiscences provide the personal element
lacking from Roderick Dunnettís lucid exposition of the composerís
life and works in the CD booklet. This long essay covers
the whole of Maxwell Daviesís oeuvre but dwells on the works
recorded so that they are admirably put into context. Dunnett
includes many quotations from the composer talking about
his music. But I felt I never really got a feel for why Maxwell
Davies writes as he does; perhaps that sort of speculative
enquiry is for the future.
Dunnettís essay is rather light on personal background,
apart from the composerís childhood. Perhaps given the space
this is inevitable. However there is mention of the composerís
male partner, Colin Parkinson, doing DIY on their new house
in the late 1990s. Parkinsonís appearance raises more questions
than it answers, especially as Dunnett has previously been
reticent about the private side of the composerís life. But
this is a mere quibble. Dunnettís extended essay provides
an admirable context for listening to the music. His strength
lies in his ability to provide context for works - using
his own and Maxwell Daviesís words to describe what you will
hear and why.
This is an excellent introduction to this composerís
music. The content of the two CDs has been carefully chosen.
Not only does it reflects the full flavour of Maxwell Daviesís
work; it also offers enjoyment to those who are new to his
work as well as those who already have experience of it.