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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Works from the 1960s and 1970s

CD 1: O magnum mysterium, Seven In Nomine, Second Fantasia on John Taverner's ‘In Nomine’.
The Choir and Orchestra of Cirencester Grammar School, London Sinfonietta, New Philharmonia. Conductors: Peter Maxwell Davies, David Atherton, Sir Charles Groves.
recorded Cirencester, March 1962, Walthamstow, January 1972, London July 1979.
CD 2: Antichrist, Missa super "L'homme armé", From Stone to Thorn, Lullaby for Ilian Rainbow, Hymn to St. Magnus
Vanessa Redgrave (speaker), Mary Thomas (soprano) Timothy Walker (guitar), The Fires of London, conductor: Peter Maxwell Davies
recorded London, November 1971, January 1972, and June 1975. ADD
DECCA 475 6166 [76'38" + 78'06"]

A whole generation of listeners were not even born when this music came out on LP.

As this is the first release in CD format, it will open the ears of a completely new audience who have hitherto been forced to beg illegal copies from those who still have the long unavailable originals. Those with an extensive collection will welcome the chance to get a less fragile CD version.

O magnum mysterium was written in 1960, when the composer was teaching school at Cirencester. Since the theme is the wonder of the Nativity, the childlike simplicity is entirely apt. It is almost like a medieval play, in which enthusiasm and piety mean more than technical skill. The second Sonata, Lux fulgebit, is dramatic, almost like ritual music. The basic theme, O magnum mysterium, is performed first by solo soprano, then soprano and alto, then with four voices.

Three of the Seven In Nomine expand themes by Renaissance composers, while three others are entirely original creations. The first develops a theme of Taverner, while the second and third, are much more individual. The fourth and sixth return to early music, but it is the fifth that is the pivotal centre of the work. The composer describes it as a "realisation of circular canon, with the plainsong on a cross inside a circle", almost as if he were setting a graphic shape to music. Mathematicians sometimes refer to the "music" inherent in their work, a concept that Maxwell Davies would understand.

A far more elaborate and ambitious piece is the Second Fantasia on John Taverner's ‘In Nomine’, scored for full orchestra. The composer says it sprang from his opera, Taverner, because he wanted to develop the musical ideas beyond what might be possible on stage and in drama terms. The musical ideas seem to morph from one to another, shifting shapes, blending together and transforming. Antichrist also springs from this period. This short work starts with a "medieval" theme, but soon dissolves, to the sound of clanging bells, into a dialogue between percussion and plucked strings.

With Missa Super ‘L'Homme Armé’, Maxwell Davies extended the idea of deconstruction and rebuilding. A fragmentary Mass is juxtaposed with medieval popular music, and distortions thereof, including bits of pre-recorded music played in performance. As the pieces cross, they set off new patterns of inventiveness. The dividing line between sacred and profane, modern and ancient blurs as the music comes into its own.

In 1971 Maxwell Davies moved to a remote croft in the Orkneys. The spartan landscape, its mysterious past and its very remoteness inspired a new stage in the composer’s creative evolution. He met the poet George Mackay Brown, whose Fishermen with Ploughs provided the text for Maxwell Davies' From Stone to Thorn. Mary Thomas, who created the piece on the recital stage, uses her voice like an exotic instrument. In comparison, the orchestration is fairly conventional, by the composer’s standards. The dramatic outburst by clarinet towards the end serves to highlight the complexity of the voice part. In the miniature Lullaby for Ilian Rainbow, the guitar takes on what might often be the vocal role.

Maxwell Davies’ identification with Orkney runs very deep, not only in his music but also in his sponsorship of the Stromness Festival and commitment to the islands' preservation. The recording ends with The Hymn to St Magnus, based on a twelfth century manuscript. It begins with an adaptation of the original hymn, opening out to the complex, dramatic Sonata Prima which seems to evoke the seascape and the ancient legend. In the Sonata Seconda, the whole panoply of percussion bursts forth in a controlled cacophony, underpinned by strings and clarinet. It is as if the bells of church litany, ships bells at sea, bells as signals of distress and of worship, were all participating in a grand theatric vision. When Mary Thomas's voice joins in, repeating the phrase "St Magnus, Pray for us", it is like a mystic incantation.

This is a very fine reissue which highlights key stages in the composers development and will perhaps be complemented by further reissues of important material.

Anne Ozorio



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