This disc happens to have been released close to the date of the premiere of Maxwell Davies’ Tenth Symphony at London’s Barbican on 2 February 2014. Much of the music here stands at some distance from this Orkney-based composer's operas, symphonies and concertos. I use the bland ‘some distance’ because this collection of the ‘lighter’ PMD is rarely quite that light.
Naxos have, in a very enlightened way and with no want of style and attention to detail, liberated disc after disc from Collins Classics’ deletion purgatory. This is one of that line. The present disc has swept up tracks digitally recorded by Collins Classics in 1989. The provenance of the two solo piano pieces is not given. Naxos have also made new Maxwell Davies recordings. The so-called Naxos Quartets stand proud in this company.
The seven-movement suite from the film music for The Boyfriend is in large part a super-neon re-animation of popular band music. Luminously scored and closely recorded - delightfully so - it's a fantasy/facsimile and celebration of the dance band music of the 1930s. The banjo and saxophone make a ‘lizard-like’ Brylcreem smooch of their way with A Room in Bloomsbury. As Richard Whitehouse points out in his useful notes The Boyfriend is an update of a Sandy Wilson musical of the 1920s. Only in Polly's Dream does the surrealism of the scene tempt the composer into some super-eruptive writing. The dreamer then awakes to a wild and woolly Charleston but even this melts and slips back momentarily into a groaning and cackling nightmare at 2.43. Ken Russell, the film director - himself a doughty music enthusiast - must have been delighted. This especially applies to Polly's Dream which washes back and forward between grotesqueries, Tchaikovskian horror and dance music. It's the longest movement of the seven and skids with wonderful accomplishment from sharp nostalgic focus to nightmare visions.
We stick with the redoubtable Ken for a suite of music for the film The Devils. This still shocking film continues to stir controversy and the arresting images of Polly's Dream are here fully unleashed. Titles is a whispered groan with silvery light percussion suggesting the distant sounds of flagellation. This is unnervingly counterpointed with a tender lullaby. The fracture line between these two elements is heightened by a solo female voice singing the Sanctus. After this the Hieronymus Bosch images pile in with profuse abandon. The clarinet pipes and howls, as if played by a devil who has found entertainment in casting away the white hot forks and instead torturing the victims with musical instruments. The exorcism movement parodies a foxtrot but whatever innocence is found in the dance is soon strangled with a desolate dissonant fantasy in which the woodwind riles the listener. Again a woman's voice sings a devotional solo but is increasingly hemmed in by cackling and creaking instrumental contributions. The mocking Execution and End Music leaves no softness or room for consolation. Every hint of the gentle is twisted into pain and discontent. It is as if lidless eyes must watch the horrors and cannot turn away. This is extraordinarily disturbing music even without our knowledge of the film.
We are not given the name of the solo voice in The Devils Suite.
The Seven In Nomine is the earliest piece here (1965). It is one of a flock of satellite pieces that spun off during the writing of the opera Taverner (1970). Each of the seven brief panels is separately track-accessible. The music in four of the panels is a derivative of the Gloria Tibi Trinitas from Taverner's Mass of that name. This dissonant music is subtle and gently imagined, being touched-in and coaxed rather than blasted at us. This has more in common with the works by which the composer chalked up controversy: Eight Songs for a Mad King and Vesalii Icones the Unicorn recordings of which were funded by Ken Russell. While obviously different and more chamber-soloistic Seven In Nomine has by its nature much in common with RVW's Tallis Fantasia.
This is all stunningly recorded. Do not entertain fears of harsh early digital sound. Everything chimes cleanly yet has satisfying impact.
The two final piano pieces are played by the composer but we have no information about their provenance. The very short Yesnaby Ground is from The Yellow Cake Revue, a theatre piece campaigning against the mining of uranium just outside Stromness. It sounds part gentle Bach and part striding Grainger. The disc ends with the Farewell to Stromness. This also is an unassertive piece but so much more fully formed and so much more touching than Yesnaby Ground. It chimes and lilts its quiet melancholy way into the mind. Scottish snaps are referenced along the way and there is surely something of the exile's sadness in every bar. It deserves to be one of your inheritance tracks. That it has not been picked up by Classic FM is no reason, because of its own inherent and unhurried beauty, why it should not be now. At least it would serve as a classy antidote to Einaudi.
A surprisingly fresh and agreeably discomfiting selection. Try it and be surprised.
Davies on Naxos - reviews