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Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Symphony No. 1 (1973-4) *
Points and Dances from 'Taverner' (Act 1 Dances; Act 2 Points and Dances) ¹
Philharmonia Orchestra *
Simon Rattle, conductor *
The Fires of London ¹
Peter Maxwell Davies ¹
Recorded at Kingsway Hall, London, August 1978 * and St. John's, Islington, December 1971 ¹.
DECCA 473 721-2 [71.31]

Given that most of Peter Maxwell Davies' previous recordings are now unavailable (thanks to the demise of Collins and Unicorn Kanchana), this current reissue is very welcome. I say this despite its unnecessary promotion of conductor (Rattle) over composer in the artwork, if not the booklet notes (mainly old ones by PMD himself). For those newly initiated to the varied and superb music of this most talented and grounded of contemporary British composers, there is some hope on the recorded music scene. Regis have just reissued the UK Sinfonia/Sinfonia Concertante disc with the promise of new chamber discs on Naxos from the Magginis (a specially commissioned series) and hopefully a reissue of the marvellous Collins series.

This listener's favourite PMD pieces were originally, and are, to some extent still, his shorter and lighter orchestral works - the Collins anthologies Maximum Max and Mavis in Las Vegas are, despite some overlap of repertoire, totally essential if you are lucky enough to encounter them - or if Naxos reissue them. The latter is not entirely unlikely, given the example of the goldmine of ex-Delos/Seattle/Schwarz discs of Diamond, Piston et al that has recently hit the shelves. Anyone who has heard An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise and doesn't have a place for it in their heart probably doesn't have one! The symphonies, the first of which is issued here for the first time on CD, are rather sterner stuff. However they offer some marvellously distilled fusions of concentrated nature painting (inspired by PMD's Orcadian maritime/rural environment and previous northern muses, especially Sibelius) and earlier influences (Taverner, Monteverdi etc.). I still feel, perhaps rather sentimentally, that his greatest (and possibly simplest) piece is the incredibly moving lament for solo piano, Farewell to Stromness, written in the face of impending nuclear industry despoliation of his adoptive home. That said, the symphonies are a remarkable body of work and are fully deserving of your attention.

The four movement First Symphony, despite lasting almost an hour, manages to avoid the charges of flabbiness and longueurs that were levelled, from some quarters, at the composer's Violin Concerto. A spare, taut feeling pervades, from opening Presto (thirteen minutes plus), through the Lento initiated second movement, and the gargantuan Adagio (nearly twenty minutes), to the closing (again) Presto. In terms of music I have recently encountered, the name Douglas Lilburn, especially the later, spikier Third Symphony and some of the solo piano music, springs especially to mind. The composer's own notes are highly informative and mention key influences on the work - Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, a PMD touchstone, is unsurprisingly mentioned, as is Sibelius (more specifically, the Fifth Symphony). Schumann and Boulez were rather less immediately obvious in their relevance but that, in itself, may go some way to explaining the broad appeal of the composer. The symphony was dedicated to William Glock, a still controversial figure, yet PMD has recently been described as "the new Vaughan Williams". So, if you would like to hear some cogent, well structured (fairly) contemporary music, look no further. The tunes are admittedly less abundant than in the shorter pieces but for anyone well versed in say Rubbra or Robert Simpson that need not represent too great a problem. Absolutely worth hearing.

The companion work is a series of "interludes" from the opera Taverner, the subject of which is the 16th century composer who looms very large in PMD's musical worldview. It features the legendary Fires of London - Alan Hacker, Timothy Walker, Elgar Howarth etc. - conducted by the composer in chamber style groupings. The music is not as substantial as the symphony, unsurprising with sixteen pieces lasting barely more minutes, yet is fascinating for its updating of the musical styles of the time. It fascinatingly illustrates the transition/overlap between the composer's avant-garde beginnings and his mature style. An early triumph for the then young conductor Rattle, this CD is an excellent addition to the Decca British Composers imprint and carries a very strong recommendation.

Neil Horner



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