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MAX: Maxwell Davis Lucy Shelton, Claire Booth (sopranos), London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen, QEH, 22 April, 2005 (CC)

It is perhaps Peter Maxwell Davies' time ... at last. The ongoing and excellent series of Naxos Quartets (Quartets Nos. 3 & 4 have just been received for review) is one part of this, and the present celebration of Max is another.

Oliver Knussen is notoriously generous in his advocacy of the music of his colleagues, and there was little to fault the standard of interpretation and performance on this particular evening. Any difficulties Max may put the performers' way are all in a days work for the illustrious London Sinfonietta, anyway, and as a result there was throughout a confidence one just does not encounter anywhere else. The concert juxtaposed music from the years 1965-72 with a UK premiere of a 2001 work.

To describe a work called Antechrist (1965/6) as an overture perhaps demeans the import of its title. But then again Maxwell Davies always wanted to speak the unspeakable, and here to achieve his aim he takes the thirteenth-century 'Dei confitemini Domino' as his starting point and proceeds to dissect it, segment it, juxtapose those segments, create huge registral spaces, all within the compass of a small ensemble (violin, piccolo, bass clarinet, cello and percussion). The work begins almost as Elizabethan masque music, moving through its disturbances to a moment of pure, beautiful stasis just before the close. Memorable.

The experienced Lucy Shelton was the soprano soloist for Revelation and Fall, written the year after Antechrist. A setting of a poem by Georg Trakl ('Offenbarung und Untergang'), Maxwell Davies calls upon his soloist in Revelation and Fall to make extensive use of Schoenbergian Sprechgesang (Pierrot surfaces very obviously on occasion), screaming, and even calls upon her to seek recourse to a loudhailer (camouflaged here until used, to increase the shock value, presumably. Shock unless one had read the programme, of course). Maxwell Davies relishes in this, setting the emotive component sounds of the German language (the tentative opening dwelt long on the 'Sch' sound of the first word, 'Schweigend'). Shelton remained very much part of the ensemble, so much so one strained to hear exactly what she was singing at times (this was I believe very deliberate). It was the quieter, more interior moments that linger here, particularly a duet between soprano and (excellent) bassoon at the onset of the third stanza.


A performance of the Masque Blind Man's Buff (1972) began the second part of the concert, wherein Shelton was joined the talent of the young Claire Booth (who took part in Birtwistle's The Second Mrs Kong at the RFH recently). Booth took the part of the Boy King, Shelton that of the Jester (the 'plot' is that a King unwittingly marries his masked son to a masked princess, to be mimed or imagined – when they unmask, the King dies). Maxwell Davies uses two nursery rhymes as part of his armory, emphasizing the fairy tale element while remaining very definitely rooted in an adult world. Both singers excelled themselves. Difficult to top.

And indeed the UK premiere of De Assumtione Beatae Maria Virginis (2001) did feel like a huge disappointment. The imagination is there, and indeed the philosophical basis of the work is fascinating. This is that the Holy Trinity is expanded to include Mary, making a Holy Quaternity (thus including a facet of the Eternal Feminine in the principal equation of the Christian faith). It is hardly a new idea – Rosicrucains have long maintained, for example, that an expanded band of Jesus' followers numbered 120 (the twelve disciples representing the band's inner circle) and that this 120 included women, including Mary.

Yet if the basis is exciting, the realization isn't. At 31 minutes (in this performance; scheduled at 28) the work is too long for its materials (which, of course, include Plainchant). Moments of extreme, hypnotic beauty stood out, as did some stunning trumpet playing from Alistair Mackie, but these were moments in a work that ran out of steam. There was better – much better – earlier in the evening.

Colin Clarke


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